See this bottle of extra virgin olive oil? The label says it's totally pure, 100 percent organic, and the healthy choice for a lunchtime salad dressing. Psyche! It’s actually vegetable oil (and definitely not delicious when poured over lettuce).
The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) has just added almost 800 new records of “food fraud” to its Food Fraud Database. Among the foods most susceptible to manipulation are items some of us grab from the kitchen every day: olive oil, milk, coffee, and tea.
What’s the Deal?
“Food fraud” may sound funny, but we’re not talking about the Hamburglar here. The term refers to situations when food sellers purposely add to, mess around with, or misrepresent food, or when they mislead customers about what’s inside a given container in order to make more money Defining the public health threat of food fraud. Spink, J., Moyer, D.C. Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program (A-CAPPP), School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State Univ., East Lansing, Mich. Journal of Food Science 2011 Nov-Dec;76(9):R157-63.. (Think diluting “extra virgin” olive oil with cheaper stuff such as peanut oil.) The USP’s database includes records from 1980 to 2012 (though most of the records are from the last two years) and suggests that food fraud has increased a whopping 60 percent in the last year alone.
The Food Fraud Database was first released in April 2012, when the USP found that the foods most vulnerable to fraud were olive oil, milk, saffron, honey, coffee, orange juice, and apple juice Development and application of a database of food ingredient fraud and economically motivated adulteration from 1980 to 2010. Moore, J.C., Spink, J., Lipp, M. US Pharmacopeial Convention, Rockville, MD. Journal of Food Science 2012 Apr;77(4):R118-26.. And while those foods still top the list, the new report also adds seafood (specifically fish and shrimp), clouding agents (sometimes used in fruit juices to make them look freshly squeezed), and lemon juice to the roundup.
As far as we can tell, the entries in the database don’t implicate specific brands, but point the reader to scientific studies on different instances of food fraud. Some examples are “merely” frustrating: Olive oil can be diluted with cheaper oils, and pricey spices such as saffron can be adulterated with dangerous food colorings. Others are just plain gag-worthy: Tea is often diluted with lawn grass or fern leaves. And a fish called escolar, which can cause stomach problems, has been known to masquerade as tuna or albacore.
Is It Legit?
Looks like it. The USP isn’t the only group to make a stink about food fraud. In July 2012, the National Consumers League accused four brands that claimed to sell 100 percent lemon juice of diluting their juices with water. And in August 2012, the FDA issued an alert regarding the adulteration of honey.
Luckily, government and non-profit organizations have tried to take action on behalf of our stomachs. Over the past few years, Connecticut, California, New York, and Oregon have all adopted the North American Olive Oil Association’s standards for quality olive oil. And as for the sweet stuff, a group of honey companies and importers called True Source Honey looks out for illegally sourced honey.
But it’s possible to fight food fraud on an individual basis, right in the supermarket aisle. For those willing to put in the extra time, it’s generally safer to buy whole fruits and spices and squeeze or grate the stuff at home. The Internet also makes life a little easier: If you’re suspicious about a particular food, check the USP Food Fraud Database or just do a Google search to see if that brand has ever been reported for fraudulence. Interested in taking activism a bit further? It’s always possible to petition the FDA to set standards for the production of the most commonly faked foods. And, of course, when in doubt (about the authenticity of a food product), throw it out! (Or just don’t buy it in the first place.)
Will you think twice about buying the products that topped the list of fraudulent foods? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.