Crown Attorney Karen McCleave

Former Assistant Crown Attorney Karen McCleave on the global fight to keep our food safe, honest and pure

Con artists in ritzy yachts trying to flee collapsing Ponzi schemes have been there. Terrorists, drug kingpins and gunrunners may even consider it a badge of honour. On what? Interpol’s most-wanted list, also known as the “red notices.”

Now the storied police agency is fighting to contain a new and increasingly sophisticated challenge to public safety — the trafficking in fake food, and the clear and pressing danger it presents. Surprised?

Former Assistant Crown Attorney Karen McCleave has been following the issue closely. This interest transcends her legal background in the courts of Ontario, Canada. She seeks out healthy food in her passion for cooking, while sampling and creating recipes made from the freshest and purest ingredients.

The criminal activity ranges from low-level graft to mass-production of incredibly toxic grocery products fraudulently labeled as recognizable brands. She notes that in one raid at an Italian cheese factory, police found chemicals used to make old cheese seem fresh. In the back, they also discovered cheese that was being smoked using burning trash as a heat source. In another raid in Italy, police found seafood that was soaked with citric acid, phosphate and hydrogen peroxide to make old fish appear fresh.

In Britain, one discovery left some chronically horizontal drinkers shaken and stirred: Police raided a plant making fake brand-name vodka using antifreeze. On-site was reverse osmosis equipment used to remove the chemical’s colour and odour.

Michael Ellis, a career Scotland Yard detective who now heads the agency’s Trafficking in Illicit Goods and Counterfeiting unit, put the issue in stark terms in an interview with Britain’s Business Reporter: “There are people out there who do not care, they have no concern at all for the impacts further down the chain — all they want is that money. …

“You and I could go into a shop and buy fake alcohol without knowing it. If you are lucky you will go blind. If you are lucky you will get kidney failure. If you are unlucky you will die.”

Another prime example was the mass methanol poisoning that killed 38 and injured many more in the Czech Republic in 2012. Criminal enterprises controlled by two businessmen were routinely adding methanol to alcohol products to increase the profit margin.

Former Assistant Crown Attorney Karen McCleave believes that although raids conducted against such criminal networks are important victories in the battle for food integrity, the task is immense, and much more needs to be done: “The threat goes far beyond items like a bottle of olive oil masquerading as a higher quality product. Lives can be lost and health ruined.”

One reason for this growing danger is that today’s food supply chains stretch around the world, with mystery ingredients appearing suddenly from anonymous, unaccountable sources. For example, one analysis found that creating a processed pizza is no longer as simple as pie. Some of the pizzas evaluated were found to include up to 35 different ingredients that passed through 60 countries.

In the absence of stronger international laws, standards and commitments to transparency by suppliers and retailers, identifying and then finding the source of a misleading or even toxic ingredient can be extremely difficult.

“Much of the challenge is rooted in the extraordinary reach of the global marketplace,” says food consultant David Edwards. “When a Chilean summer strawberry can make it to the top of a banana parfait in a Manhattan restaurant in mid-winter, we’re in a new world that demands a whole new level of vigilance. It’s a food supply network with so many links that tampering with just one can easily go unnoticed.”