Next time you are sitting down to enjoy a perfectly seared, wild-caught salmon filet drizzled with extra virgin olive oil alongside organic greens and a nice glass of red, consider this: those are among the top ten foods and drinks most susceptible to fraud. Rounding out the list are milk, honey and maple syrup, coffee and tea, spices, grains, and fruit juice.
According to a January 2014 report from the Congressional Research Service (“CRS Report”), up to 10% of commercially sold food and drink products are affected by fraud. Food fraud is the intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food or food ingredients for economic gain. This includes replacing key ingredients with cheaper alternatives and wrongly labeling foods.
The CRS Report noted that some of the most common replacements include:
- Milk from cows being diluted with milk from other animals or adulterated with reconstituted milk powder, urea, oil, detergent, and caustic soda;
- Honey and maple syrup diluted with corn syrup or other simple sugars;
- Coffee and tea ground with twigs, sawdust and chicory; and
- Olive oil diluted with cheaper vegetable oils.
Not to mention the straightforward mislabeling of foods, including labels claiming that certain foods originated from one country when they actually originated from another, regular foods being labeled and sold as organic, and cheap, low quality fish and meat being labeled as expensive fish and meat, sometimes of a different species altogether.
For example, a 2012 survey of fish purchased in restaurants, markets and sushi bars throughout the country found flagrant fish fraud. Specifically, the study found that in the 120 samples labeled red snapper, 28 different species of fish were found, including 17 that were not even in the snapper family. Almost two-thirds of the “wild” salmon samples studied were actually farmed Atlantic salmon, and, in New York, fish that was being marketed as tuna was not actually tuna in 94 percent of the samples taken.
An August 2013 draft report from the European Union Committee on the Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety (“EU Report”) noted that food fraud has been gaining attention in Europe in recent years as a result of high profile cases. Remember the great horse meat scandal? The EU has also recently uncovered regular eggs marketed as organic, the use of road salt in food, and the widespread practice of diluting olive oil with cheaper oils. The olive oil fraud is so rampant that the EU appointed a specialist testing company to establish if the grade declared on the label is genuine.
The CRS and EU Reports both noted that more and more, criminal organizations are the driving force behind food fraud, given the huge potential for economic gain and the scant oversight and lenient penalties for those caught. There is also the difficulty authorities have of identifying the place in the supply chain – the producer, packager, shipper, or seller – where the fraud took place, given the globalization of the world’s food and agricultural supplies.
The best defense against food fraud in the short term is to buy local and cook at home. But that is not always possible or desirable. However, long term solutions are lagging far behind the criminal gangs tampering with our food. Legislation often falls short of addressing food fraud in a comprehensive manner, and regulators are short on resources and ability to identify fraud and bust food crime rings. Until legislation and enforcement catch up, and given that the top foods subject to food fraud are also among the world’s most popular foods, we are left to wonder if our dinner tonight is what we think it is.
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