Issue #81 | Honey Fraud Crisis | PFAS in Plastic Food Packaging | The Remarkable Spaghetti Tree | Seaweed Tool Box |
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Honey Fraud Crisis (Astonishing Results)
Seaweed Food Safety
More PFAS - this time in polyethylene food packaging
News and Resources Roundup (food safety news without the boring bits)
The Spaghetti Tree
Food fraud news, incidents and updates
Welcome to Issue 81 of The Rotten Apple, a flavour explosion of unexpected information: honey (fraud), seaweed (safety) and spaghetti (trees), yum!
First, I explore explosive results from an European honey fraud investigation. Almost half of imported honeys tested were flagged for suspected adulteration and more than sixty percent of honey importers imported at least one suspect consignment. That’s pretty bad!
Then I share new information about PFASs in food packaging. Usually, it’s grease-proof paper-based packages, like pizza boxes and takeaway containers that are considered most risky for contamination with these dangerous ‘forever chemicals’. This time, however, polyethylene packages are in the spotlight.
Our food safety news roundup this week has news of a botulism outbreak caused by pickled carp (yum 🤔?). And our food fraud news, which is only for paying subscribers, features giant snails, dodgy onions, sugared orange juice, unlicensed cheese and dead cats.
This month’s supplement for paying subscribers is a food safety toolbox for edible seaweed.
Finally, because it’s April Fools’ Day in a few days, it is my pleasure to introduce you to the most famous food-related April fools’ prank of all time: the spaghetti tree. Enjoy!
Honey Fraud in Europe
My daughter loves honey and eats a lot of it. She spent a few months in Europe last year- mostly Spain - and told me the honey there had no flavour. She said it tasted like sugar water.
‘Honey’ that doesn’t taste like honey may have been diluted with water and adulterated with non-bee sugar syrups: food fraud. Honey is one of the most fraud-affected foods on the planet, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear her say that “the honey in Europe just doesn’t taste like honey”.
But I was surprised. Europe takes its honey seriously. And it takes food fraud seriously, too. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear about flavourless probable-fraud-affected ‘honey’ in other parts of the world, but I was surprised to hear my daughter say it was “everywhere” in Europe.
The last time I saw Europe-wide honey fraud results they were quite good. For example, a honey checking operation that was part of the famous Europol/Interpol anti-food-fraud activity, Operation Opson X, in 2021, found that of the 495 honey samples tested, 93% were compliant. Separately, a European honey fraud survey in 2015 – 2017 reported only 14% ‘suspicious’ samples.
Seven percent, fourteen percent, as non-compliance rates, they are hardly fantastic but they don’t match my daughter’s claim that all the honey she tasted in Europe was affected.
But new results have just been published for a multi-year European anti-honey-fraud operation and they are pretty bad. Of the 320 samples tested in the operation, almost half were suspected of being non-compliant with the provisions of the European honey standard (the Honey Directive).
What is going on here? Why are these results so much worse than past surveys?
Firstly the samples that were tested do not represent the European-wide honey market. The sampling focussed only on imported honey and only on adulteration with sugar syrups.
Secondly, the methods used in this most recent round of testing are almost certainly different from previous European surveys. The test methods are only suitable to identify “suspicions of fraud” by looking for chemical markers of extraneous sugars (presence/absence only) and they are different from the officially-approved honey test methods.
The European Joint Research Council (JRC) says these methods are “the most sophisticated methods” currently available but they have not been validated and they are not part of the regulatory framework.
For this enforcement activity, the analytical results were used only as a tool to decide whether further investigations were needed to uncover fraud in the honey supply chain. Further investigations included on-site inspections, examination of documents, computers and phone records.
Investigators reported that fraudsters appear to be deliberately adjusting the levels of adulterants so that they can evade border control checks. The European Union’s Food Safety Commission says that officially-approved honey authenticity test methods are not keeping up with the fraudsters, claiming that analytical methods used for border control checks “lack sufficient sensitivity to detect low and intermediate levels of sugar adulterations”.
The investigations began more than eighteen months ago, but it appears likely that there are still high levels of fraud-affected honeys in the European market now. More than sixty percent of importers were found to have imported at least one suspicious consignment.
In fact, the European Food Safety Commission, last week reported that “there is a strong suspicion that a large part of the honey imported from non-EU countries and found suspicious by the JRC of being adulterated remains present and undetected on the EU market” (source).
Honey fraud is difficult to detect and expensive for government agencies to investigate. Fraud perpetrators have been shown to use sophisticated systems to evade detection, and these investigations appear to show that importers and exporters are working together to defraud customers and governments.
If your business purchases honey, food fraud mitigation activities must go beyond checking documents or relying on letters of guarantee.
As a consumer, it is impossible to tell whether honey is fraud-affected or not, but if you suspect honey of being fraudulent, contact the brand owner as a first step and share your concerns.
…. Or you could seek out incense honey, a premium mono-floral honey from the incense flower in Portugal, for which all samples in a recent analytical test were found to be authentic 😊.
Food Safety of Edible Seaweed
This supplement includes an overview of seaweed food safety hazards, plus a comprehensive list compiled from multiple sources, as well as links to guidance documents for developing a seaweed HACCP plan and further reading.
Have you got a suggestion for a deep dive? Reply to this (or any email) to let me know - I read every response.
If you haven’t subscribed to this newsletter yet, you should do that now. Free or paid, it’s all good! (But paid is better 😊 because it supports this high-quality, ad-free, independent content)
PFASs in Plastic Food Packaging
The ‘risky’ type of food packaging for PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) has traditionally been grease-proof paper and paperboard packaging, like pizza boxes.
Reminder: PFAS are ‘forever chemicals’ that persist in human bodies and the environment. Some of them have potentially nasty health effects. Check out Issue 73 for an overview of PFAS in food and food packaging.
Researchers recently found PFAS chemicals in polyethylene plastics. Polyethylene is used for food packaging. It is often thought of as less risky when it comes to problematic chemical additves, compared to plastics like vinyls (which can contain added plasticisers) and polycarbonate (which can contain added BPA).
Polyethylene comes in low density and high density variants. Low density polyethyle (LDPE) is soft and transparent – think food wraps and cling wraps. High density polyethylene (HDPE) is rigid and usually opaque – think plastic ice cream containers, opaque squeezy plastic sauce bottles and rigid stoage totes, buckets and tubs.
The researchers were inspired by an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report that showed PFASs were migrating from a high density polyethylene pesticide container into the pesticide. They wanted to see if they could replicate these worrying results with food. Unfortunately, they did.
The containers they used in their study were made from HDPE and had been fluorinated. The fluorination process creates a thin layer of a fluoropolymer which extends the life of the container and can impart better chemical resistance. The polymers themselves don’t seem too bad. According to the researchers, they are not prone to migrating (‘leaching’) into food. However, the fluorination process also creates other small molecules of PFAS chemicals and these are prone to migration.
In the study, food, including olive oil, ketchup and mayonnaise was stored in fluorinated HDPE containers for one week and the concentrations of PFOA (one of the ‘dangerous’ PFAS chems) was found in the stored food at levels far above the US EPA’s 2022 Health Advisory Limits.
More on PFAS in plastic food containers
An orange juice company was sued in the USA in January after lab tests found levels of PFAS chemicals “hundreds of times” higher than the levels considered safe in drinking water. (This was in our food safety news roundup of 23rd January).
A food packaging company that allegedly treats plastic food containers with fluorine gas to make them stronger was sued in the USA in December. The fluorination process produces PFAS chemicals. Tens of millions of containers are treated this way each year. The company says they believe they are in compliance with relevant legislation (This was in our food safety news roundup of 7th January).
🍏 The research paper: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.estlett.3c00083 🍏
News and Resources
Click the link below for a carefully handcrafted selection of food safety news and resources from around the globe. It’s been expertly curated (by me! 😎) and is free from filler, fluff and promotional junk.
The Spaghetti Tree
(Just for fun for April Fools’ Day this weekend)
In the early days of television, food like spaghetti was considered foreign and mysterious in Britian. So for April Fools’ Day of 1957, the esteemed public broadcaster, the BBC, published a short news item about a family in Switzerland harvesting spaghetti. They had a bumper crop after a mild winter and the disappearance of the spaghetti weevil pest, reported the BBC.
After the program aired, hundreds of people contacted the BBC to learn more about how they could get a spaghetti tree of their own. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best." (Source)
What you missed in last week’s email
· Erratum re botulinum toxin
· Domoic acid - a potent food-borne toxin that you really don’t want
· Food Safety News and Resources Roundup
· Sustainable eating = nutrient deficiencies? The respected dietary guidance that forgot women
· Food fraud news, incidents and updates
Below for paying subscribers: Food fraud news, incident reports, and emerging issues, plus 🎧 an audio version 🎧 for busy professionals
📌 Food Fraud News 📌
Weird food fraud of the week
An unauthorised cat meat production facility was shut down by authorities and butchered carcasses were seized (4 tonnes). The facility was