Food fraud – milk

Food fraud is nothing new, but the intensity and frequency have been on the rise. From counterfeit extra-virgin olive oil to intentional adulteration of spices and the manufacturing of fake honey, food fraud has been estimated to be a $US40 billion a year industry. In a series of posts we will cover a range of recent issues.

Milk is the third in our series on fraudulent food

Next to prostitution, historians consider counterfeiting the world’s second oldest profession. Similar to fraudulent honey and olive oil, which we covered in previous posts, food fraud involving milk has been around for centuries and is actually to my surprise number one on the list of food tampering issues worldwide, due in particular to current cheating in the developing world.

But the Western world has had its problems too. It was common in the old German Empire to dilute milk by 50 per cent and to restore the original consistency by adding a range of substances like sugar, flour, chalk or gypsum. Spoiled or otherwise contaminated milk was sold without hesitation.

In the mid-19th century, New York’s dairy farmers increased their profits by feeding their cows with cheap waste from distilleries. This resulted in watery and blue-tinted milk that farmers mixed with starch, plaster, chalk and eggs to improve texture and colour, then diluted further with water.

Milk fraud has now spread to the developing world due to an increased demand for milk.

Increased milk consumption

Milk in its natural form has a high food value, since it is comprised of a wide variety of nutrients which are essential for proper growth and maintenance of the human body. In recent decades, there has been an upsurge in milk consumption worldwide, especially in developing countries, and it is now forming a significant part of the diet for a high proportion of the global population.

As a result of the increased demand, some unscrupulous producers are indulging in milk fraud. This malpractice has become a common problem in the developing countries, which might lack strict vigilance by food safety authorities.

One of the oldest and simplest forms of milk fraud is through the addition of variable volumes of water to artificially increase its volume for greater profit. This can substantially decrease the nutritional value of milk, and if the added water is contaminated there is a risk to human health because of potential waterborne diseases. For infants and children this may be a serious concern as they are more vulnerable, at a critical stage of growth and development and are dependent on milk products for supplies of vital nutrients. Babies fed fraudulent milk are at risk of malnutrition and even death.

Adulterants added to milk

Although the vast majority of food fraud incidents do not pose a public health risk, there have been fraud cases that have caused extensive illness. Perhaps the most widely cited, high-profile case involved the addition of melamine to milk-based products to artificially inflate protein values. In 2008, it was reported that melamine-contaminated baby formula had sickened an estimated 300,000 Chinese children with symptoms of irritability, dysuria, urination difficulties, renal colic, hematuria, or kidney stone passage. Hypertension, edema, or oliguria also occurred in more severe cases, killing a reported 6 infants. 

A range of other inferior cheaper materials may be added to diluted milk to increase the thickness and viscosity of the milk, to maintain the composition of fat, carbohydrate, and/or protein and to increase shelf-life. They include reconstituted milk powder, urea, rice flour, salt, starch, glucose, vegetable oil, animal fat, and whey powder, or even more hazardous chemicals including formalin, hydrogen peroxide, caustic soda, and detergents.

Some of these additions have the potential to cause serious health-related problems.

Toxic effects caused by some milk adulterants

The presence of urea in milk may cause severe human health problems such as impaired vision, diarrhea, and malfunctioning of the kidneys. It may also lead to swollen limbs, irregular heartbeat, muscle cramps, chills and shivering fever, and cancers, though these are less likely with the concentrations present in the adulterated milk.

Formalin is highly toxic to humans in small amounts and is classified as a carcinogen. Its ingestion is known to cause irritation, often leading to dry skin, dermatitis, headaches, dizziness, tearing eyes, sneezing and coughing, and even the development of allergic asthma.

Hydrogen peroxide damages the gastrointestinal cells which can lead to gastritis, inflammation of the intestine, and bloody diarrhea.

Detergents have been shown to cause food poisoning and gastrointestinal complications. Some detergents also contain the toxic ingredient dioxane, which is carcinogenic in nature.

Difficult to quantify food fraud

It is not known how widespread milk fraud is as those who commit fraud want to avoid detection and do not necessarily intend to cause physical harm. Thus, most incidents go undetected since they usually do not result in a food safety risk and consumers often do not notice a quality problem.

The full scale of food fraud is not known, as the number of documented incidents may be a small fraction of the true number of incidents. However, some researchers contend that food adulteration is not necessarily more common now, but reputational repercussions are certainly more far-reaching with today’s worldwide media coverage.

Detecting food fraud relies on testing. As new tests are developed we get better at detecting frauds, but the fraudsters will always be looking for new ways to cheat those tests. 

Newer technology will help fight food fraud in the future. These include tracers and edible inks that can be used to tag foods, biomarkers, and DNA fingerprinting. 

While it might seem alarming to hear reports of fake and adulterated foods, this might actually be a good thing, because it means testing and surveillance is working.

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