Fourteen people in Spain have been charged with food fraud after it was discovered they were involved in an operation producing hamburger patties that contained less than 25 per cent beef despite labelling otherwise.
The meat company based in Burgos, whose name has not been disclosed, had been operating since at least 2002 where it was producing and trading low-quality products instead of products containing a percentage of beef as the main ingredient as the labels purported to contain.
The beef-labelled products, including quick-frozen hamburger patties and other products such as meatballs, were found to be padded out with pork, bread supplements, fats and soy. Some products were found to contain less than 25 per cent beef.
The Spanish Civil Guard called the racket "a major food fraud of national scope".
The investigation into the company began in December 2015 when authorities were first alerted to the possible food fraud.
The covert operation involved agents visiting a multitude of facilities belonging to the company and secretly taking random samples, while more than 3,000 documents were seized and examined.
Analysis in a specialised lab was required to confirm the extent of the adulteration, with the civil guard saying the elaborate nature of the food production aimed to prevent the discovery of the deception.
"The scope of marketing appears to be very high, as the company manufactured white-label products [for supermarket home brands] that were distributed in the domestic market," the civil guard said. "The significant differences between the prices for beef and the rest of the materials used to supply the original meat provided important economic benefits to the Burgos company."
The scam in Spain has hallmarks of the 2013 horsemeat scandal in the UK and comes on the heels of the widespread food fraud case in Brazil that recently saw two large meatpackers allegedly bribing political parties and the Agriculture Ministry in order to sell out-of-date meat to the public, including some exports to Europe.
The two-year investigation uncovered that chemicals were used to improve the look and smell of the rotten meat, which was also mixed with normal meat to improve its appearance and dupe customers.
The Agriculture Ministry was said to have been "taken hostage", with the meatpackers exerting significant influence by being able to pick the inspectors who visited their plants.
While the US Department of Agriculture confirmed no products had been shipped to the US, pathogen testing of all meat products from Brazil was stepped up in response to the scam. And, as reported in The Economist, the EU restricted products from 21 suspected facilities, with China and Chile imposing a blanket ban on Brazilian meat imports.
Meanwhile, separately, Brazilian police have recently uncovered a racket where fish from China was illegally imported into the country adulterated to be heavier. The conmen injected the fish with water and chemical products, which meant the heavier fish could be sold for a higher price.
In a recent article, Food Industry Asia says more needs to be done to address food fraud and regain consumer trust. It cites the need for an action plan to improve regulation and enforcement, with laws extended beyond food safety to food fraud, and an overhaul of credence verification and improved governance.
"Economic operators in the food sector and governments who claim to be serious about reducing food fraud must read and understand the Elliot report [published in the wake of the horsemeat scandal] and consider its recommendations… Regulations and laws must also adapt to a broader focus beyond food safety to ensure consumers are protected from economically motivated food fraud," the article says.