Last week, the owner of Tasty Balti takeaway in Leeds pleaded guilty to ten charges of food fraud.
Tests by public health analysts on the fast food restaurant's dishes uncovered beef in the lamb curry, artificial cheese in place of mozzarella, non-permitted food colouring in the tikka masala, and a lamb doner kebab billed as "100-percent lamb" that actually contained nearer to 5 percent. West Yorkshire Trading Standards said it was one of the worst cases of food fraud they had seen in recent times.
Owner Arshad Hussain has been fined for the offences. Before the trial the trial, however, Tasty Balti was your average kebab house: doling out greasy sustenance to the inebriated and lazy masses with a respectable 4.9/6 stars on Just Eat. It begs some unsavoury questions about why your favourite Friday night doner is always a bit … chewy.
Food fraud is anything from a turkey/ham switcheroo to that Simpsons episode in which Homer pushes open a door marked 'Milking Room' to find thousands of rats lactating into the school milk supply.
"We've had a number of these cases with takeaways in West Yorkshire in recent months," says David Strover, food team manager at Trading Standards. "We interview them under caution to see if they have ever purchased lamb. Many of them can't and are just buying a generic meat or beef ingredient."
According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), food fraud is committed when food is sold with the intention of deceiving the customer. This usually means mislabelling one food product and substituting it with a cheaper alternative, as in the case of Tasty Balti's masquerading 'lamb' curry. But it also includes false statements about the origin of ingredients or the sale of illegally slaughtered animals.
Basically, food fraud is anything from a turkey/ham switcheroo or "Scottish" salmon caught somewhere north of Norway to that Simpsons episode in which Homer pushes open a door marked 'Milking Room' to find thousands of rats lactating into the school milk supply.
Since the horse meat scandal galloped its way around Europe in 2013, there has been much discussion on how the UK food system should be policed. Last year, the government commissioned Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security, to write a report on current weaknesses in the food supply network.
The Elliott review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks found inadequacies in food safety across the country but highlighted a number of findings from Yorkshire.
More than one third of food samples taken over a six month period in West Yorkshire were mislabelled, and just two out of ten lamb curries bought from North Yorkshire takeaways contained lamb. Strover says these figures may not show the full picture, however.
"We take more food samples in West Yorkshire than pretty much any other trading standards department in the country," he says. "We're a large department with a large budget for food sampling. We will take seven to ten times the amount of food samples other councils will. Because we take more, we find more."
Lack of budget or standardised food sampling targets for local authorities makes it difficult to identify areas of food safety concern. Elliott's report described Trading Standards departments as "cut to the bone" and warned that councils would be "unable to effectively protect consumers" if further cuts were made.
While an increase in food safety budget is one of the report's suggested measures, York Outer MP Julian Sturdy has also called for harsher sentencing for food fraudsters. Speaking in Parliament following the release of the report, he said that "tough sanctions [should] be brought to bear on anyone who would not only jeopardise the health of British consumers, but cheapen the reputation of the agricultural industry."
There is also concern that lenient sentencing for food safety crimes leads to large scale food fraud cases. The Yorkshire Post even suggested that organised criminal gangs were switching from drug dealing to food crime, due to the financial rewards and comparatively lesser punishment if caught.
While the image of a Barnsley Avon Barksdale swapping street narcotics for counterfeit stock cubes is appealing, a spokesperson for West Yorkshire Police told MUNCHIES they had "no evidence of drugs gangs becoming involved in food related crime."
Organised criminals may not be dabbling in food fraud, but mislabelled food can still have deadly consequences. In 2010, allergy sufferer Emma Egerton died after eating a curry containing nuts.
The Manchester student had ordered the chicken tikka korma from an online takeaway, unaware that it contained ground almonds cooked in nut oil. By the time paramedics reached her, she had suffered an anaphylactic shock and died in hospital later that evening.
South Manchester deputy coroner Joanne Kearsley said that Egerton's death could have been avoided if the takeaway had listed nut ingredients on its menu.
In a recent survey of lamb takeaways, almost a quarter of dishes included a non-declared meat such as chicken or beef.
"There may be a number of reasons why these problems continue to emerge with takeaway outlets. In many cases, it is poor practice rather than attempts to mislead consumers," explains an FSA spokesperson. "Economic pressures could be leading to this, but there is no excuse for defrauding customers."
The problem of mislabelled food at takeaway outlets, especially the substitution of meat products, prompted the FSA to carry out a nationwide "lamb takeaway survey". Released this week, the survey saw local authority trading standards and health officers sample 307 takeaway lamb dishes for the presence of non-declared meat.
The results are worrying. Almost a quarter of dishes included a non-declared meat such as chicken or beef, while 4 percent tested positive for undeclared allergens like peanuts. A further 2 percent were branded "non-compliant" for the unauthorised use of additives. With stats like that, is there such thing as a genuine lamb curry?
"Businesses with good hygiene practices and food safety management are often likely to have similarly high standards in other parts of their business," says the spokesperson. "We would always recommend looking at a business' Food Hygiene Rating Scheme rating when deciding to order from them."
In other words, if that rotating slab of unspecified meat product looks dodgy, it probably is.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2015.