Authors: Yahaya Sumara Sulley and Aaron Amankwaa
The food sector of Ghana is primarily composed of locally produced crops, livestock, poultry, fishery products, spices and processed food. In addition to these, there is a high demand for imported food products. A major challenge in the food sector is the lack of transparency in food manufacturing and inadequate information about the original provenance, details of procedures and compositions of food products.
Food fraud can be described as the deliberate act of altering, misrepresenting, mislabeling, substituting or tampering with food products to gain undue advantage over the consumer (1). The complexity of food fraud is that only the perpetrator knows how the raw materials have been altered. This puts the consumer at a high risk of any toxicological effect, simply because they do not know the composition of the raw materials used.
Food fraud in Ghana
Food fraud strategies in Ghana include adulteration, substitution and counterfeiting of food products. A common practice is the adulteration and substitution of products with similar ones of low quality, either partially or completely, which eventually expose consumers to health risks and allergic complications.
For instance, palm oil, a major locally produced food product, has been found to be adulterated with Sudan dyes (I, II, III and IV). Other products that have been found to be adulterated or substituted with harmful substances include honey products, alcohol, palm wine, and cheese.
It was reported in 2019 that organochemicals with lindanes and endosulfans were the most abundant agro-based insecticide residues found in vegetables and some fruits in the country (2). Similar findings were presented by Gonu et al. (3) in sampled fruit-based drinks in the capital city of Ghana, which even though were below the EUs MRLs, the levels detected significantly affect the wholesomeness of the products.
A 2011 research by Tutu et al. (4) showed high levels of organochlorine pesticide residues in the breast milk of primiparae mothers in La, a suburb of Accra. This was after several scientific studies indicated that common items on the local market, such as powdered pepper, groundnut paste, fish and tomatoes powder contained chuff, condiments and unknown amounts of foreign materials.
Although this situation is being tackled by national institutions, such as the Food & Drugs Authority (FDA), news headlines about the identification of fake food products show how the fight against food fraud in Ghana require more efforts than just normal conventional investigative methods.
Role and interventions of national institutions
The FDA was established under the Food and Drugs Law, 1992 (PNDCL 305B) to implement laws and policies that will promote the production and consumption of safe food in the country. The role of this regulatory body includes the inspection of production sites, product licensing and regulation, including monitoring food, drugs, and food supplements. Since then, the institution has solved a number of cases related to food fraud (5).
In 2015, Mr. Edward Archer, a Principal Regulator of the Food Safety Management Unit of the FDA, cautioned caterers about the need to be aware of the dangers of food fraud and also to play their roles effectively to help in the fight against the situation. In another media report, Mr. Charles Agyei Mensah, a Regulatory Officer of the FDA, called on traders and market women in the Volta region’s Central Market in Ho to be wary of the increasing rate of unsafe food from fraudsters on the market.
In 2018, the FDA established a state-of-the-art mini lab at the Tema Habour to help speed up operations related to imported food products through quick testing methods thereby ensuring conformity, safety and quality of product before it reaches the consumer. Furthermore, pursuant to the core mandate of the FDA, a food safety supervisor’s course was established to help in the fight against food fraud and ensure food safety in the country.
Other institutions involved in the war against food fraud include the Ghana Standards Authority (GSA). The GSA supports the investigation of food fraud through the use of scientific analyses and forensic procedures/technologies. The GSA operates an in-house Forensic Laboratory involved in the scientific investigation of common poisons and heavy metals in food and drinks.
The situation of food fraud is not new. In 2018, The Grocer (UK) published an article highlighting the immense food fraud problems in Africa and the need for a change. In 2016, food technologist, Dr. Faustina Dufie Wireko-Manu warned the public that, “Once you eat food in Ghana you have eaten something that you are not supposed to eat”, making clear to the public how food fraud has taken a sharp rise within a short period, hence the need for a multi-disciplinary approach to addressing the menace.
Prof. Elvis Asare Bediako, Dean of the school of Agriculture UCC, reiterated at a workshop on rice integrity that “the awareness of food fraud is very limited in Ghana and Africa. This has given many people the opportunity to dupe unsuspecting consumers.” Since 2015, unscrupulous people have taken advantage of the rice market, commonly known as “rice fraud” in West Africa, because the ports are major gateways of importation into the sub region.
In 2015, the first ever National Conference on Food Fraud was held by food scientists at KNUST with the aims of combating food fraud through the formulation of laws and regulations, and monitoring of food group associations, market women, research, food industries, institutions and associations.
How can forensic science contribute?
The core procedures of forensic science include evidence recovery, examination, analysis, interpretation and evaluation of evidence, and the presentation of evidence to court/appropriate authority. These procedures are underpinned by the maintenance of the integrity of evidence through the prevention of contamination, maintenance of the chain of custody of evidence and contemporaneous notes taking to assure the reliability of evidence and ensure transparency in forensic investigations. These processes should be incorporated in the training and practices of employees of food inspectorate departments, including food inspectors, supervisors and food scientists.
Besides the aforementioned, the practices of traditional forensic science involve the identification and association of individuals and items, the prediction of events/activities and the protection of society/systems through the application of scientific/technical tools, such as DNA analysis and databases, soil/microbial analysis, trace evidence analysis, chemical and toxicological analysis and digital evidence analysis. These tools could be used to assist in the identification of perpetrators of food fraud and detection of unlawful activities.
In “food forensics“, specific scientific tools that have been utilised include isotope analysis, nucleic acid analysis, proteomic/metabolomic analyses, and other biological/chemical/toxicological analysis. These tools have provided a means to perform biological and chemical “fingerprinting” of food components, thereby enhancing product tracking and trackback, process verification and the determination of the authenticity, quality and safety of products (7).
A contemporary method for food and wildlife species identification is DNA barcoding. This is a genetic analysis which is based on the study of specific segments of DNA that is capable of uniquely identifying a species – similar to the way a barcode uniquely identifies a specific product (7,8). When dealing with products of animal origin, such as milk, meat or fish, DNA barcoding can be used to identify unknown species by comparing the sequence of an unknown species to an available database of known sequences. The procedure can also be used in plant-based products, including spices, and it cuts across processed, finished and packaged products across the supply chain.
In addition to the above, mass spectrometry-based analysis can be used to investigate questions of food quality, authenticity, and safety of food products, such as cheese and other products, which are highly susceptible to mycotoxins and other harmful substances during preparations.
The issue of food fraud is significantly growing in Ghana due to factors such as the drive towards globalization, meeting economic opportunities, and the low probability and severity of punishment to perpetrators of such crimes. It can be understood clearly that food fraud is an economically motivated crime in Ghana however the health consequences are very disturbing and detrimental, hence a need for a reformed way of curbing such crimes in the country.
It is, however, worth emphasising the opportunities forensics brings to law enforcement in the area of food fraud. Most importantly, food forensics could be used to assist in the resolution of straightforward or complex problems with higher efficiency.
The application of forensic science in food fraud cases could minimize investigation time, improve efficiency, and provide robust, transparent and reliable scientific evidence to help answer legal questions. Additionally, the practices and procedures of forensic science could enhance the level of professionalism and responsibility required in food fraud investigations. The work of the respective institutions responsible by law for the fight against food fraud could be enhanced through the expansion of their forensic resources, including the establishment of well-equipped food forensic laboratories across the country, and training of food scientists and other related professionals in forensic science practices and procedures, and applicable technologies.
Finally, food fraud advocacy and education should be extended throughout the country to properly disseminate information concerning the effects of food fraud. The public should also be informed about the institutions and resources available to tackle food fraud, and how they can report cases of food fraud to the authorities. Lastly, security checkpoints across the country should be well protected to avoid the entry of inferior, adulterated and falsified products which can easily endanger the health of thousands of Ghanaians.
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- Mohammed S, Lamoree M, Ansa-Asare OD, de Boer J. Review of the analysis of insecticide residues and their levels in different matrices in Ghana. Ecotoxicol Environ Saf. 2019;
- Gonu H, Adu Appiah K, Addy F. Organochlorine Pesticide Residual Levels in Fruit Juice Produced in Accra , Ghana. Elixir Food Sci. 2015;
- Tutu AO, Yeboah PO, Golow AA, Denutsui D, Blankson-Arthur S. Organochlorine Pesticides Residues in the Breast Milk of Some Primiparae Mothers in La Community, Accra, Ghana. Research Journal of Environmental and Earth Sciences. 2011;3(2):153-9.
- Welcome to Ghana Food And Drug Authority | Home [Internet]. [cited 2020 Nov 22]. Available from: http://www.fdaghana.gov.gh/
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- Primrose S, Woolfe M, Rollinson S. Food forensics: Methods for determining the authenticity of foodstuffs. Trends in Food Science and Technology. 2010.
- Galimberti A, De Mattia F, Losa A, Bruni I, Federici S, Casiraghi M, et al. DNA barcoding as a new tool for food traceability. Food Research International. 2013.