Canadian Food Inspection Agency tests reveal false claims about food products, including expensive oils

Among the olive oils tested, approximately 88 percent were compatible. In the past, the industry has faced criticism for diluting “extra virgin olive oil” with cheaper vegetable oils or containing artificial colors.Andrew Purcell/The New York Times News Service

Food fraud remains a major concern in Canada, according to a new report — a problem that stretches across grocery store aisles, where in the case of some products, as many as a third of items are mislabeled.

Thursday’s report from Canada’s Food Inspection Agency provides, for the first time, a comprehensive look at the problem of food fraud in the country. It paints a picture of a complex and ever-changing problem – one that can be found across the food supply, and from coast to coast.

From 2020 to 2021, the CFIA conducted a large-scale investigation of the five most common product categories for mislabeling: olive oil, honey, spices, fish, and “other expensive oils.”

Of the “expensive oils” tested – sesame, coconut, avocado and grapeseed oils, both imported and from Domestic producers – 33 percent were found to be non-compliant. The report does not specify the nature of the non-compliance, nor whether they were able to assess the actual content of the samples. It states that expensive oils are “at risk of substitution and dilution with low-quality oils.”

“Food fraud is a tactic that deceives consumers and is unfair to our agricultural and agri-food producers,” Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bebeau said in a statement. She noted the government’s 2019 pledge to spend $24 million over five years to combat the problem.

A statement from Food, Health and Consumer Products Canada, which represents major companies such as Kellogg’s and Nestlé, said it supports CFIA’s efforts. “Our members take great pride in the safety and quality of their products,” said Senior Vice President Michi Furuya Zhang. “It’s their number one priority.”

The CFIA report focuses primarily on product substitutes (eg products that are diluted with cheaper products). But food fraud can also include mislabeling (including inaccurate country of origin, or false claims, such as “organic”). It also includes cases of counterfeit products.

The problem is global. With Canada’s globalized food system — one that relies on long and opaque supply chains — officials have voiced concerns over the years. About the complexity of law enforcement against such fraud.

A 2020 study by University Laval researchers found that only 33 percent of Canadian food business owners feel their business is safe from such fraud.

CFIA results from the other categories present a slightly more positive picture.

Among the olive oils tested, approximately 88 percent were compatible. In the past, the industry has faced criticism over “extra virgin olive oil” that is diluted with cheaper vegetable oils or contains artificial colors.

For honey, 88 percent of the products were compatible. Those that didn’t pass contained exotic sugars, such as cane sugar, corn syrup, and rice syrup.

For fish — an industry that has long faced questions about species substitution and supply chain transparency — 91 percent of samples passed the test.

The category with the highest success rate was Spices. Among the products tested — including cumin, pepper, cinnamon, paprika and turmeric — nearly 93 percent were considered satisfactory. And those who did not pass the test, according to the report, were “more indicative of cross-contamination than deliberate cheating or substitution.”

It’s still almost certain that the problem is worse than the report suggests, said Robert Hanner, professor of integrative biology at the University of Guelph. Professor Hanner is Canada’s leading expert on food fraud and frequently performs lab tests on misleadingly labeled products.

The CFIA study’s relatively small sample size (525), he said, means that the results should be “interpreted with caution.” One of Professor Hanner’s studies in 2019, for example, found a much higher rate of incorrectly labeled fish: 32 percent.

Given current supply chain problems and record food price inflation, “the problem is likely to get worse in the future,” he said.

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