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Food Fraud: Are you paying for scallops and getting shark meat?
Does what’s in the package match what’s on the package? Not always. How often are consumers deceived and cheated by food manufacturers? Estimates say that 5-10% of the products on sale contain fraudulent claims. Now the food industry is urging federal regulators to do more to combat this deception. The FDA, the agency with the major responsibility for making sure that foods are labeled correctly, has been preoccupied with food contamination and unable to give food fraud the attention it needs.
Food fraud sneaks into our products in all these ways : 1) A cheaper ingredient is substituted for a more expensive one that that the label claims is being used. 2) A known food allergen is in the product, but the packaging doesn’t list it. (This deception or error can be deadly for allergic consumers.) 3) The product packaging makes untrue claims about the nutritional values or health benefits of the product. This occurs with foods and also with vitamins and supplements, especially with so-called diet pills, memory boosters, energy boosters, and sexual performance enhancers.
Here are some examples of food scams that have been uncovered:
• Expensive “sheep’s milk cheese”? Not really. It was made with cow’s milk, a food allergen that could make some consumers seriously ill.
• “Sturgeon caviar?” Nope. It was Mississippi paddlefish. But the consumer who pays top dollar for an exotic luxury item should get exactly that.
• “Scallops?” Maybe not. Cookie cutters have been used to turn shark meat or skate into scallop look-alikes.
• “Wild” salmon? Most of what’s sold as “wild” salmon is actually farm-raised.
• “Olive oil?” Often, it was wholly or mostly another oil that was cheaper to produce. This scam deprived misled consumers of the heart health benefits and taste they seek by cooking with real olive oil. (Read more about the international olive oil scam by clicking on the New Yorker link listed below.)
• “100% pure honey”? The price was high enough for top quality, but the product was diluted with sugar beets or corn syrup.
• “Pure maple syrup?” Not exactly. It was diluted with water and sugar.
• What could be in coffee? Dishonest manufacturers have used corn, sugar, soy, and even wood to cut costs and bulk up the product. The Brazilian Coffee Industry Association is cracking down on these cheaters. Since most Brazilian coffee is exported as beans, the impure ground coffee is primarily a Brazilian problem. Though not causing serious illness, the tainted brew does cause upset stomachs and burping.
Misleading illustrations and packaging blurbs often imply that a food is something other than what it really is. NutritionAction provides the following examples and more: Smucker’s Simply Fruit contains more fruit syrup than fruit, and the syrup doesn’t even come from the fruit pictured on the label but from some cheaper fruit. According to the box of Kellogg’s Eggo Nutri-Grain Pancakes, the product is “made with Whole Wheat and Whole Grain.” Yes, but they’re primarily made of white flour. Dannon’s DanActive claims to “strengthen your body’s defenses,” but the company’s own study did not prove that to be true.
Government agencies regularly post online notices of recalls due to the presence of undisclosed allergens. Two recalls that ShelfLifeAdvice noticed recently were 1) Glutino Raisin Bread, which contained undeclared egg. (Consumers who have an allergy or sensitivity to eggs run the risk of serious or life-threatening allergic reactions.) and 2) Zatarain’s Original Dirty Rice Mix, which contained unlisted wheat and barley ingredients. People who are allergic or sensitive to various ingredients—perhaps peanuts, eggs, milk corn, or specific additives or preservatives—depend upon accurate, complete listings of ingredients, and they suffer if listings are incomplete or outright lies.
Food fraud is nothing new. It has been on the scene since Roman times. British food writer Bee Wilson has published a history of food rip-offs entitled Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. According to James Morehouse, who is studying food scams for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, “It is growing very rapidly, and there’s more of it than you think.” An increase in imported foods may be one reason for the growing problem.
It is almost impossible for the individual consumer to detect these scams. But the food industry and the government can fight back. New high-tech tools (such as DNA testing) have made it easier to recognize fraud. DNA can be extracted from a wide range of foods (including fish, meat, rice, and coffee) and then compared to the DNA of a database of samples. Isotope ratio analysis can detect where products came from, for example, whether a fish was farmed or caught in the wild or whether caviar is imported or American-made.
The new technology is so easy to use that some New York City high school students, working with scientists, tested 66 foods sold in Manhattan and found 11 that were mislabeled. Large companies, in an effort to protect their brands, are also using the DNA testing.
So what can you do to protect yourself from food scams? Not a whole lot, but here are a few suggestions.
• Buy from reputable stores that you trust.
• When possible, purchase major American brands.
• Read the list of ingredients carefully. That can keep you from being misled by the implications of illustrations or slogans on packaging. The major ingredients of a food are listed ahead of the others, so you can identify the main ingredients, and the facts may surprise you.
• Sugar by any other name is still sugar. If the ingredient name ends in –ose it’s probably sugar, though it may be called high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, or sucrose in an attempt to hide the fact that the product is loaded with sugar.
• Be especially careful when purchasing olive oil. In 1997-8, it was the most adulterated product in the European Union. Here are some tips on what to look for to get authentic, good-quality olive oil:
√ Don’t buy products labeled “light” or “extra light” olive oil. They may be made with olive oil pulp treated with chemicals, and they may contain carcinogens.
√ Look for these trustworthy certifications on labels of imported oils: IOOC, DOP, DO, or HAEPAO. Look for COOC on labels of California oils. The COOC website recommends specific brands, most of which are sold only on the Internet.
√ If it’s inexpensive, it’s unlikely to be real extra-virgin olive oil. That sells for at least $12 for a 500 ml. bottle and, for top quality, the price can be much higher.
Food scams go on all over the world—and, in many countries, to a greater degree than in the U.S. But that’s small comfort to consumers who have been cheated and/or sickened by deceptive labeling.
Washington Post, “The problem of food fraud,” by Ezra Klein, March 31, 2010
Walletpop.com “Food Fraud! Watch out for ‘wild salmon’ and a few other fakes out there”
Princeton University Press “Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee”
NutritionAction Health Letter “Food Frauds: They trick and rip you off!
Boston.com “Increase in imports, competition fuels rise in ‘food fraud’” by Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post.com “FDA pressured to combat rising ‘food fraud’” by Lyndsey Layton
Newyorker.com “Slippery Business: the trade in adulterated olive oil by Tom Mueller, August 13, 2007
Reuters.com "'Coffee police’ fight fraud on shop shelves”
Squido.com “Olive Oil Scam”
Newyorker.com “Slippery Business: the trade in adulterated olive oil" by Tom Mueller, August 13, 2007
Walletpop.com “Food Fraud! Watch out for ‘wild salmon’ and a few other fakes out there”
Princeton University Press “Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee”
NutritionAction Health Letter “Food Frauds: They trick and rip you off!”