KANSAS CITY — On June 3, Austin DeCoster and Peter DeCoster, executives with Quality Egg L.L.C., pleaded guilty in federal court to distributing adulterated eggs in interstate commerce. While much of the focus of the case is on the company’s many food safety violations and the illnesses they may have caused, it is also a classic example of food fraud.
In addition to pleading guilty to selling adulterated products, the executives also plead guilty to selling misbranded eggs with the intent to defraud. From 2006 through 2010, company employees labeled egg shipments with false expiration dates. There were a number of ways the company mislabeled the older eggs with newer processing and expiration dates. Sometimes employees did not put any processing or corresponding expiration dates on the eggs when they were processed. The eggs would be kept in storage for several days or weeks, then, prior to shipping, they would be labeled with dates that were false.
What is disturbing about this example is Quality Egg’s fraudulent activities went on for four years and only came to light because of an outbreak of Samonella enteritidis that may have sickened more than 1,900 people between May and November 2010. It is not a stretch to assume that if the outbreak had not occurred such practices may still be ongoing.
The case combined with what we now know has taken place in the olive oil, honey and European beef industries highlight a significant blind spot within the supply chains of food processors, retailers and food service operators. While food safety must be the primary concern, the possibility of food fraud cannot be discounted.
In early May the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (U.S.P.) submitted a letter to the Food and Drug Administration urging the agency to reconsider its strategy to address economically motivated adulteration of food ingredients.
“Economically-motivated adulteration of food ingredients is a significant concern, with its own challenges, posing a threat to public safety, eroding consumer confidence in the integrity of food and disrupting markets by placing control of the supply chain in the hands of criminals,” said Ronald Piervincenzi, Ph.D., chief executive officer of U.S.P. “E.M.A. should be addressed as its own unique category of food adulteration.”
The U.S.P. recommended the F.D.A. consider a framework designed to address the specific nature of E.M.A. The group suggested in the letter that a risk assessment focused on determining the likelihood of E.M.A. occurring be undertaken and include a public health risk assessment and a plan to mitigate the risks.
“Any food ingredient can be adulterated, and the list of potential adulterants is equally unlimited,” Dr. Piervincenzi said. “The best way to protect consumers and safeguard industry is to focus on determining where E.M.A is most likely to occur. Publicly available standards can also help safeguard against adulteration of food ingredients by helping assure food integrity and excluding ingredients that have been substituted, diluted or replaced, through fraud or other means.”
While U.S.P.’s recommendation is sound, it may fall on deaf ears. It is no secret the F.D.A. is struggling to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act as well as address its myriad other mandates, many of which are unfunded.
Developing guidelines to address E.M.A. may fall on the industry and groups like the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Restaurant Association. Given how much capital is invested in developing and maintaining brand integrity it seems as if such an effort would be a worthwhile endeavor.