In recent weeks, social networks have been filled with messages warning about the alleged risks of food imported from third countries, allegedly contaminated with toxic substances or pathogens. But This information is not always reliable, nor are some of the tips for checking the origin of food. We will tell you in detail in the following lines.

Food security in Europe

It is often said that trust is difficult to earn and very easy to lose. This can be clearly seen in the field of food, especially if we talk about food security. Getting consumers to trust that the food we eat is safe takes a lot of time, effort and money..

It is not just about developing standards, establishing controls and applying other measures to ensure that food is safe. It is also necessary to transmit this information so that it is known and so that there is awareness that the foods we find on the market today are safe and do not pose a health risk in that regard. And time to see firsthand that, in fact, this is the case.

However, All that effort can go to waste in an instant, as happens when a major food crisis occurs. We can think, for example, of what happened with mad cow in the early 2000s or, more recently, with the listeriosis outbreak caused by the consumption of contaminated shredded meat.

food hoaxes

Currently, we do not live in the context of a crisis derived from a food alert or an outbreak caused by the consumption of contaminated food. But if We are immersed in a tense situation, with difficulties in production and distribution (climate crisis, scarcity of resources, armed conflicts, etc.), high prices and protests in the primary sector.

In this atmosphere of nervousness, Hoaxes and unverified information about the alleged contamination of certain foods spread like wildfire. It is happening especially with some vegetables imported from third countries (fruits, vegetables, etc.), about which messages are sent that question their safety, attributing these alleged risks to their origin.

Alleged contamination of plant foods

green beans that glow under UV light
Image: paula693

In recent weeks, two cases related to the alleged contamination of imported vegetables have shaken social networks. They serve as an example to show how this type of information is sometimes transmitted and what we can do to interpret it appropriately.

🔦​ Green beans with residue

The first example is a video in which some green beans supposedly contaminated with phytosanitary residues. The person recording points at them with an ultraviolet light flashlight that allows a substance to be seen on the surface. Next, that person implies that it is a phytosanitary product and that this puts health at risk.

The truth is that there are many substances that are visible under UV light. Among them we can find, for example, some harmless ones, such as catabolites that derive from the degradation of chlorophyll, which is naturally present in these vegetables.

In any case, mere observation under a UV light does not allow us to identify what substance it is or know whether it may pose a health risk or not. To identify and quantify these substances, it is necessary to perform laboratory analysis..

🍓 Strawberries and hepatitis A

The second example is related to a food alert that warned about contamination of strawberries with the hepatitis A virus. This information was spread through social networks and some media outlets, causing considerable concern.

In this case the alert was true, but it was not intended for the final consumer, but had been collected in the RASFF system, which is used in the European Union for the exchange of information between food authorities.

These types of alerts are common with all types of foodsregardless of its origin, but Many times we are not aware of them because measures are taken before they pose a risk to the consumer. This is precisely what happened in this case: the strawberries were recalled before they reached the market, so consumers were not exposed to the risk.

The safety of food imported from third countries

In the cases mentioned, the information referred to food imported from third countries, specifically Morocco, calling into question its safety.

It must be clarified that Food sold in the European Union must comply with European legislation, even if it comes from non-EU countries. This means that plants cannot contain residues of phytosanitary products above the maximum limits established in the legislation.

In any case, there are countries not belonging to the European Union where the requirements are more lax in different aspects (environment, labor rights, food safety, etc.). This, added to other implications associated with the importation of food (environmental impact, socioeconomic impact on our environment, etc.), has caused a growing interest in the origin of food.

Now, if we want to know this information, it is necessary to keep in mind some important issues that can mislead us.

⚠️ False clues: what is not reliable to know the origin of food

barcode and food origin
Image: PDPhotos

❌ Barcode

On the Internet and social networks we can see countless messages stating that the way to know the origin of a food is to consult the barcode, so that “if it starts with 84, we are looking at a Spanish product.” However, this is not necessarily the case.

The barcode used in Spain is based on the EAN-13 system, which allows the identification of each product using a thirteen-digit code. The first numbers are associated with the countryso codes starting with 84 (that is, from 840 to 849) correspond to Spain. But that does not mean that the products that have these codes were produced in our country.

This number indicates that the product is marketed by a company in Spain, although it may have been imported from another country. Furthermore, it may be a company that is not Spanish, given that A company in another country may request a barcode that begins with 84. In short, the barcode does not allow us to know the origin of the product or the nationality of the company.

❌ Health registration number

The General Health Registry of Food Companies and Foods (RGSEAA) is an informative database that includes the census of food companies that operate in Spain and require national health registration. This must be shown on the labeling of products of animal origin (this is what is known as the “sanitary oval”), whether they have been processed (for example, UHT milk, cheese or canned tuna), or not. (minced meat, fish fillets, etc.). But in many other foods it is not mandatory to indicate it:

  • Some foods of animal origin, such as honey or eggs.
  • Foods containing a mixture of products of plant origin and processed products of animal origin (for example, a pizza with cheese, anchovies and tuna).
  • Foods that are not of animal origin (for example, green beans or tomatoes).

In short, andThe health registration number is valuable information for the consumer because it allows knowing who the economic operator is that has carried out the last operation on the product (and it is public consultation). But it is not useful to know the origin of the product or the company.

❌ Trademark

Some products use trademarks related to geographical locations that can mislead us, making us think that it is the origin when in reality it is not. For example, there are melons from Brazil where we can find stickers with the words “Selección Villaconejos”, which are not indicators of their origin, but rather a commercial claim.

❌ Variety of vegetables

There are plant varieties that have geographical names, such as Valencia oranges, Padrón peppers or Fuji apples. This can mislead us, so it is important to take it into account when consulting the labeling so as not to confuse it with the origin, which may be very different. For example, we can see Valencia variety oranges from South Africa or Padrón variety peppers from Morocco.

❌ “Packaged in”

In stores we can find many processed vegetables whose packaging highlights some geographic location in our environment (for example, “peppers made in Navarra”). But that does not necessarily mean that the raw material comes from that place. To know it we must consult the label carefully. For example, in some we can read “made in Navarra”, “origin: Argentina”.

How to check the origin of a food

Definitely, The origin of a food is not always what we can see at first glance. That is, we should not confuse it with advertising claims or trademarks. Nor are the barcode, the health registration number or the company’s address indicative of the origin of the food.

To consult it, we simply have to look at the “origin” indication. If we talk about fruits and vegetables, it must be shown, whether they are packaged or sold in bulk.

Why are there more imported foods than before?

It is increasingly common to find imported foods, something that is mainly explained by two reasons:

👉 To try to meet the demand. Here we could make a distinction between different foods, according to the importance they occupy in our diet. For example, legumes, which are among the basic foods of the diet, we have to import them from third countries because the national production is not enough to meet the demand.

This is less necessary if we talk about other foods cherries or oranges, whose production seasons in our territory are restricted to a few months specifics of the year. If we want to eat cherries in December or oranges in August, we have to bring them from other countries, such as Argentina, Peru or South Africa.

👉 Because of the prices. Although it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes it is cheaper to bring fruits and vegetables from distant countries than to buy them from national producers. This is explained above all by the lower levels of demand that exist in those territories, regarding aspects such as working conditions, environmental measures, restrictions on the production and use of phytosanitary products, etc.