Are those fruits and vegetables really organic? Here, how to become a more savvy consumer.

Wth food fraud in the news, Canadians are becoming more aware of the importance of learning about the producers, manufacturers and suppliers we rely upon to put safe, quality food on our tables.

Food fraud is the misrepresentation of a product’s composition or the adulteration (substitution or dilution) of ingredients for economic gain. With reports of scams and increasing agricultural and food imports, the risk of food fraud has become a global concern.

“Consumers need to be more savvy. We need to understand how food is produced, where it comes from and be more aware when it comes to product labelling,” says Aline Dimitri from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Established in 1997, the government agency monitors and regulates the safety of our food supply, including animal and plant health and enforces packaging and labelling laws. The CFIA encourages Canadians to contact them about suspected food fraud. From 2012 to early March of 2018, the CFIA undertook 705 investigations.

An unsuspecting consumer could buy fruits and vegetables that are not certified but sold as organic for a higher price. Tilapia fish filets can be labelled as red snapper. Food fraud also includes the mislabelling of information on a package, including product weight. So a potato chip bag might consist of only 210 grams of chips when the label indicates 220 grams.

Food fraud impacts everyone within a supply chain from the grower and fisher to the manufacturer, supplier and retailer. “Industry is working toward end-to-end traceability. Tracing a product from the moment it’s grown to the moment it’s purchased. They see the value-add for consumers and for themselves,” explains Dimitri, the CFIA’s deputy chief food safety officer.

Verification from an industry body can also offer reassurance that food products meet strict guidelines. Farmers who sell produce they’ve grown at farmers markets are encouraged to distinguish themselves through the Farmers’ Markets Ontario verification program, launched in 2008. “Farms are inspected,” explains executive director Catherine Clark. “Farmers are happy to have this because they’re competing with resellers.” The reseller also sells at farmers markets, but the produce is from a supplier.

Canadians visit markets to chat with farmers and buy direct from the field. But those perfect tomatoes or cucumbers may have been mass-produced in a greenhouse. They may even be from the food terminal. Clark suggests we ask the vendors how they grow their produce and question why the produce is so uniform, large or perfect in appearance.

We can also check the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s availability guide and buy fruits and vegetables in season.

Read packaging labels. Canadian legislation requires that product labels enable accessibility so consumers can connect with the importer or manufacturer.

Be sure to check the best-before date on foods like meat and dairy. The best-before date indicates the freshness, flavour and shelf life of an unopened product. Best-before date and expiration date are often confused. If the expiration date has passed, it indicates that the nutrient content or the food’s composition may have changed from what’s listed on the product label.

According to the CFIA, if the expiration date has passed, toss it out.

Buy locally. It’s important to know our food supplier, our grocer, butcher or fishmonger. Ask where the product comes from. Ask how the vendor can be sure the product label is accurate. Ask if fish or meat was actually cut in-store or if it was already cut when it arrived.

As food technology has evolved and supply chains have become more complex, the risks to our food supply have also changed. The CFIA has recently published proposed regulations on safe food for Canadians based on consultations with consumers and the food industry.

The proposed regulations will modernize food safety legislation and bring into effect new prohibitions to food tampering, deceptive practices and hoaxes; strengthen food traceability; and improve import controls.

Asking questions about the foods we buy, reporting concerns to government and letting industry suppliers know we’re watching them, is the way safety-conscious Canadians can combat food fraud and protect our families.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2018 issue with the headline, “To Market, To Market,” p. 64-65.