Review: Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Media of Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

Evershed, Richard and Nicola Temple (2016) Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  New York: Bloomsbury Sigma.

This book systematically covers the categories of food fraud that pervade global food systems and trade.  It carefully explains the biology, chemistry, and physics of food, as well as the tools that have been constructed to test authenticity of species, political-geographic origin places, and toxic dangers of additives. These later include dyes and preservatives, and substances and substitutions added to extend the quantities of shelf lives of particular products.  The first three chapters introduce “Food Fraud 101” and the major categories of falsification, with special emphasis on eggs and poultry.  The next six chapters cover specific adulterations and efforts to detect them in the major food categories: fish, red meat, dairy, spices and condiments, beverages, fruits and vegetables.  There is plenty of fraud to go around with values-based items (organic, ethically sourced) which may not originate where their values claim they do. The final chapter, “thoughts for digestion” reviews main points and technologies available or in the pipe-line for individual consumer, food-processor, retailer, or other institutional detection of misrepresentations.  This chapter also summarizes guidelines for real food sourcing that are quite similar to Michael Pollan’s principles: select whole rather than processed foods, sourced locally or from trusted sources, thereby shortening the food chain with its possibilities of fraud.  Be skeptical of deals that are too good to be true; they usually involve deceptions.  Be willing to take the time and pay a fair price to get the story and connect with the people behind the foods you eat.

These chapters are packed with food biochemistry and clear explanations of the sleuth work that goes into detecting fraud and its harms.  There is particular attention to adulterations that produce life-threatening or -ending allergens, such as peanut or dairy that purposely or inadvertently have been added to products that should not contain them.  The major motivation is greed, although some shelf-life expanding technologies claim they are fighting world hunger and local food insecurity, and reducing waste.  Cases of Chinese, then Indian and Bangladeshi adulterators are most frequently cited, but there are plenty of U.S. and European culprits or co-conspirators eager to profit from food falsification, even where this process introduces human health risks.  There are also some simple guidelines to detecting common frauds in common foods.  Individuals can use their senses (smell, taste, touch, visual observation of cooking properties) to detect products that are not what they claim.  E.g., does the spice mixture in the package or the coffee or tea smell and behave the way it is supposed to? Does the fish fillet unexpectedly fall apart (in which case it is probably a cheaper species, not pricey cod)? Does the unbelievably cheap egg have a membrane inside the shell? If not it is a counterfeit, which in quantity yields huge criminal profits for the manufacturers who operate in many countries.

Surprisingly, the EU up to the time of publication had no official definition of food fraud, in contrast to the US, which defines “the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain” (cited on p.262).  Throughout the substantive, food-category based chapters, the authors cite legal cases but bemoan the lack of inspection and regulators, even where the legal framework is in place.  They should also bemoan the lack of time dedicated to food shopping and eating, the “convenience” factor that expands food chains and distances consumers from the sources of their food.  Such distancing layers risks of fraud and harms at every level, and also reduces the consumer’s pleasure, knowledge, and connections to food and to other human beings all along the food chain.  Thin and incomplete government or food-industry oversight of food quality and truth, combined with consumers’ appreciation of convenience foods, are challenges unlikely to be resolved by greater knowledge in food forensics.  The outstanding technical perspectives also raise additional conflicts in values.  Given the emphasis on reducing food waste, should we, the consumers, prefer the apple that rots? Or the apple that, with the application of food technology, stays or appears to stay fresh an unnaturally long period of time? In a world of industrialized foods, can individuals be trained to prefer a natural strawberry to the industrialized fake flavor?

You can use the examples in discussions of traceability, hazard analysis, biochemical and flavor diversity in foods, and other food-system topics.  The book also contains a good refresher course on basic food biochemistry, with helpful chapter by chapter summaries of the major chemical bonds and reactions in an appendix.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, food policy, food politics

One response to “Review: Sorting the Beef from the Bull

  1. Pingback: Anthro roundup: “Decentering “the human” at the interfaces of anthropology and science studies?… « Erkan's Field Diary

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