Butter is without any question the most counterfeited food. This was the opening sentence at the symposium in Brussels in 1888 and while butter may not be the most counterfeited food today, the authenticity and quality of butters and margarines on sale today still come into question.
Back in the late 1800s, analytical chemists and control authorities were concerned that chalk and potato starch was used to bulk out butter, increasing the quantity and boosting profits for the seller. After margarine appeared on the market, sellers would also try to sell margarine as if it was butter as well as mixing much cheaper margarine into the butter.
There’s no doubt that the safety of our food supply has greatly improved over the last century, but food fraud involving cases of dilution, substitution and mislabelling continue to persist within the global food industry.
This became apparent when we organised training for expert witnesses giving evidence in food prosecutions and the adulteration of butter and dairy products was a popular topic for discussion.
In 2000, the European Anti-fraud Office (Olaf) snared a sophisticated criminal operation to adulterate butter orchestrated by a Mafia gang in Italy. The gang used 5 000 tonnes of substances of beef tallow and vegetable material and 400 tonnes of synthetic, laboratory-produced substances in the manufacture of a total of 16,000 tonnes of finished product, which was falsely declared as butter. This adulterated butter was used for the production of foodstuffs, butter and concentrated butter, which sold for more than 45 million Euros.
Food crime by organised criminals was something raised by Professor Chris Elliott in his recent review into the ‘Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks’. While he acknowledged that the recommendations he makes in the report “will not stop food crime” he states that they are “intended to make it much more difficult for criminals to operate in the UK”.
It is also one of the motives behind regulations for more stringent labelling of our food (The Food Information Regulations 2014), which will come into force in December 2014. One of the requirements under this new legislation is that the generic term ‘vegetable oil’ used in the labelling of food containing oil blends must be replaced by the name of the oil.
In light of these changes, Michael Walker, from the Government Chemist programme, and two co-authors set out to review the history of butter and margarine adulteration in two countries that differed in their food law and examined modern methods of testing the authenticity of butter. The result is a fascinating trip through chemical and food history and a revelation of the lengths that fraudsters can go to in the 21st century.
Did you know, for example, that we unearthed reports of synthetic triacylglycerols being used to adulterate butterfat, a practice only detectable by sophisticated Carbon 13 magnetic resonance spectroscopy?
Find out more about the science of food fraud at our Government Chemist Conference ‘Beating the cheats: Quality, safety and authenticity in the food chain’ on 24-25 November.