Early in 2013, when horse DNA was discovered in beef samples throughout the European Union, people all over the world began to talk about food fraud. They were shocked and disgusted to learn that that 47 French beef products contained horse and that almost 2% of British samples showed traces of an animal painkiller banned from livestock use. Millions of dollars’ worth of food was recalled from stores across Europe. Furniture powerhouse Ikea was even forced to pull their famous meatballs from the menu.
Said Europe in mid-2013, in about 14 different languages, “Glad that’s over.”
The fact is that while food fraud is strikingly common all over the world, we’re always in the dark about the specifics until someone uncovers a story and writes it up. Luckily, from time to time, journalists do. They know that food isn’t really much different from any other commodity (if there’s money to be made with a few illicit substitutions, you’d better believe that somebody has already taken that shortcut) and they’ve gotta eat too. They’re self-interested, in two ways. It’s just that some of this stuff is so shady and so hard to detect that it can go unnoticed for years.
But when we’re paying for low-quality fake food, we need to know. When harmful chemicals are entering the food supply, we need to speak out. And when we stumble onto a freaky list of 10 commonly counterfeited foods on the Internet, we probably need to share it with all of our friends.
10 Potential Sources of Food Fraud
If the idea of fake food creeps you out, pay extra attention to the following 10 items. Some of the foods here are expensive (which makes forgery more profitable). Others can be modified or diluted with little difficulty or suspicion. Just remember that while a scandal involving these suspect items probably wouldn’t set off an international firestorm, food tampering makes organic food safety a lot more difficult.
1. Milk. We’re not over-exaggerating the dangers of food fraud. In 2008, an outbreak of melamine poisoning in China caused by fraudulent milk was responsible for six infant deaths and over 50,000 hospitalizations. It’s thought that the melamine was added to milk that lacked nutritive value to falsely boost the protein content. Whatever the cause, though, it sparked mass panic, took a huge human toll and led to a distrust of Chinese dairies that still persists. So, no, all this talk of organic food safety isn’t just a scare tactic.
Unfortunately, we’re not safe stateside, either. Researchers have found melamine in American milk, along with formaldehyde, hydrogen peroxide, detergent, pork lard, machine oil and urea. None of that is going to do your body good.
2. Pomegranate juice. If folks will cheat to get a little extra milk from a cow, what do you think they’re willing to do with the notoriously un-juicy pomegranate? It might be tricky to extract, but pomegranate juice is in demand because it’s rich in antioxidants. The promise of that healthy boost makes it all the more disappointing that pomegranate extract often gets cut with other fruit juice or various sugars (including high-fructose corn syrup).
3. Lemon juice. While we’ve got you thinking about fruit juices, be aware that your 100% lemon juice might actually contain very little lemon. Testing from National Consumers League found four lemon products that fell far short on their promise of pure ingredients. One of the four contained only 10% lemon juice, while the other three clocked in at 15%, 25% and 35%. Is it ironic that all this disappointment comes from the one situation in life where you’re actually paying someone to sell you a lemon?
4. Honey. Here’s a good counterfeit food tip. Lots of things are sweet, but some of those things cost less to produce. Shoppers, therefore, should be mindful of sugars. Take honey for example. Since honey is almost all sugar, it’s surprisingly easy to take this wholesome substance and turn it into a fake food. In the past, people would use corn syrup or cane sugar to dilute honey, but new food fraud detection methods have caught up with the cheaters, and they’ve had to come up with new tricks. It turns out that sugar from beets mimics honey’s chemical profile even better, and that makes it harder to detect food fraud. The best food tip is to buy local.
5. Maple syrup. Another expensive sweetener, maple syrup is frequently a target for dishonest food distributors. This tree-based syrup is sometimes boiled down and diluted with water and other sugars, but the fraudsters don’t even have to go that far. Syrup of any kind can be labeled deceptively. The state of Vermont takes this issue so seriously that they’ve threatened to make the crime of misrepresenting the fake stuff a federal felony.
6. Red snapper. When it comes to food fraud, fish is big – but if you’re a seafood fan who’s looking for a food tip to help you avoid fraud, you should be especially wary of red snapper. Early in 2013, the ocean conservation group Oceana released findings from one of the all-time largest global investigations into fake fish. They found that 87% of red snapper samples were mislabeled. Some of the samples were deceptively marketed as a different variety of snapper, but perch, rockfish, bass and tilapia showed up as well.
7. White tuna. Oceana’s study found that white tuna were mislabeled at a slightly lower rate than red snapper, but the findings here might be even more disturbing. That’s because 84% of the fish sold as white tuna were actually escolar. Escolar is a very tasty fish due to its high oil content, but it’s also infamous for causing digestive problems and “oily leakage.” These unpleasant side effects have led to a complete ban of escolar in Japan and Italy, and those countries know a thing or two about fresh fish.
8. Spices. Throughout history, spices have brought big money to producers in exchange for a super-tiny amount of product. But this fact also allows an underground, parallel spice-swindling industry to thrive. Methods for selling fake saffron can be traced to ancient Greece, and the tradition continues today. There are 109 known saffron replacements, including corn silk, strands of cotton and marigolds. Paprika is another frequent target for fraud – a carcinogenic dye is used sometimes to approximate this spice’s vibrant color. Even something as common as black pepper can be padded out with buckwheat, papaya seeds or juniper berries.
9. Tea. Tea has been in high demand for centuries, so for food fraudsters throughout history it’s been a perennially exploitable commodity. Today, oolong or imperial green tea lovers are disappointed to learn that they may be paying well above market value for a bit of extra sawdust, sand, clay or even previously used tea leaves. Okay, now we’re having trouble finding our Zen place.
10. Olive oil. This is an especially helpful food tip for fans of high-quality olive oil. Buyers expect to get what they pay for – and those high quality EVOO imports are not cheap – but sometimes the good stuff from Italy is about as Italian as a deep-dish pizza. Other times, the type of olive oil is incorrect. For example, nine of 15 extra virgin olive oil samples that UC Davis tested in 2012 failed USDA standards for the “extra virgin” classification. Two other samples even contained canola oil. If you’d like to test your olive oil for quality at home, put it in the fridge. Pure olive oil will become more viscous when refrigerated.
If we know about all this fake food, why is it so hard to eradicate? Shouldn’t organic food safety advocates be pushing for laws that prohibit food fraud? Sadly, many of those laws already exist, but there’s a lack of enforcement. Resources to police our nation’s food supply are simply insufficient. Sometimes the rules just aren’t taken seriously. And, sure, sometimes the rules don’t go as far as they should to protect shoppers.
But while food fraud is relatively uncommon overall, that doesn’t mean we should be content to drink detergent-laced milk or to eat fish that contains indigestible oils. If you’re keen on activism, make sure your representatives know that the issue is important to you. But also try, as much as possible, to ward off the scam artists. Choose trustworthy grocers, avoid foods that aren’t easy to identify, and watch out for low-cost versions of quality items. Remember, you get what you pay for. It’s a law of nature.