Sniffing Out Food Fraud
The U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. In fact, shoppers here are just as likely as shoppers anywhere in the world to succumb to the growing problem of food fraud, cases of unscrupulous food producers adding cheaper ingredients to a product, for instance, cheaper oils rather than olive oil, but advertising it as the real thing. “Food fraud attempts to cheat the market by selling a substandard product and trying to get away with it,” says Markus Lipp, senior director of food standards at U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), which recently launched an online database of independently documented food fraud instances.
For a long time, food fraud was mostly associated with expensive foods—there’s a lot of opportunity in being able to sell cheaper caviar by selling catfish eggs instead of the real thing—but now, Lipp says his group is seeing more instances of cheap foods, such as fruit juice or rice, succumbing to the problem. “It happens whenever someone sees an opportunity to make money,” he says, no matter how much a product costs. So what can you do about it? It takes vigilance and some knowledge about how you might be getting defrauded at the grocery store. Here are some of the most commonly defrauded foods, according to the USP’s database at foodfraud.org
Fake-Out: Olive oil is one of the most adulterated foods, says Lipp, particularly extra-virgin olive oil. According to the USP database, products being sold as olive oil have been shown to instead be soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, canola, or palm oil, and in one case, even lard. Some products were olive oil thinned out with these ingredients; others were combinations of those oils with no olive oil present. Particularly dangerous for people with nut allergies, researchers have detected peanut and hazelnut oils marketed as olive oil, too.
Fix It: Tom Mueller, author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), recommends a few tricks that can reduce (but not eliminate) your chances of buying fake olive oil on his website, truthinoliveoil.com. Look for a harvest date, the name of the producer, and the country of origin on a bottle, all of which give you specific info on who made the oil and where. Also, look for a “DOP” (Protected Designation of Origin) seal on European oils or a state certification, such as the California Olive Oil Council, on oils made in the U.S. Finally, Mueller says that organic olive oils are less susceptible to fraud than conventional.
Fake-Out: Honey, maple syrup, and other sugary sweeteners are easy to fake, says Lipp. “The most desirable feature of these is being sweet,” he says, “so it’s common for producers to add high-fructose corn syrup [HFCS] or normal household sugar to get that sweetness.” Read the rest of this entry »