Food Fraud: Are We Getting What We Pay For?

By Eileen Weber

honey tasting
Honey varietals in tasting glasses. C/O Red Bee Honey

Food fraud—tampering, diluting, mislabeling, substituting, or misrepresenting food, ingredients, or packaging for the sole intent of financial gain—is pervasive and widespread. Remember when horse meat was detected a few years ago in what was thought to be hamburger in the UK and Ireland? This was not the first—nor the last—incident of food fraud. Fooling the consumer with a little bait and switch has been going on for thousands of years.

According to ancient laws, sellers of fake goods like corn or spices were either mutilated or burned at the stake. New York in the 1850s saw the Swill Milk Scandal: residual mash from local distilleries was mixed with Plaster of Paris to whiten it and then starch, eggs, and molasses were added for taste. As many as 8,000 infants reportedly died from the contaminants. In 1942, a civilian food inspector was charged with conspiracy after having taken part in a scheme to provide “sub-standard flavoring extracts and cocoa” to the U.S. Navy.

The list goes on. In 1981, Spanish olive oil was contaminated with residual pesticides from tomato crops resulting in 20,000 food poisonings and 1,000 fatalities. In 2007, pet food was adulterated with melamine and killed a large number of pets. A 2012 study conducted in New York City by scientists at Oceana discovered 58% of the 81 stores and 16 sushi restaurants tested mislabeled fish, selling cheap filets at top dollar. A New York Times article echoed Oceana’s findings that one in five seafood samples are fake. Seafood, along with honey, olive oil, coffee, orange juice, and a host of other ingredients like saffron, are some of the most fraudulent foods.

“There’s a misunderstanding the luxury means fraud. Not necessarily,” explained John Spink who heads up the Food Fraud Initiative at Michigan State University. “Not many people buy a $150 bottle of Scotch. But, there are certainly a lot more buying a $30 bottle. Fraud is a crime of opportunity.”

Dr. Spink has often been quoted that even a “single shipment of fraudulent food can result in tens of thousands of dollars in illegal profit” for these organized crime rings. According to Larry Olmstead, author of Real Food, Fake Food, the largest scam uncovered in the U.S. four years ago was worth $180 million from one ring of Chinese honey smugglers. Just this past March, several countries halted the import of Brazilian meats while investigators look into allegations that health inspectors were bribed to allow expired products to be sold. Chris Elliot, professor of food safety at Queen’s University and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security in Northern Ireland, sounded the alarm on the recent garlic scandal. Garlic sales around the world were the same as last year despite a cold weather snap in China that decimated crops. (China is one of the world’s largest garlic suppliers.) His team has been investigating the possibility of talcum or chalk being mixed in with garlic powder to offset the crop’s shortage.

Unfortunately, these examples are just ataste of what happens globally every day. In a 2013 article in The New York Times, Frank Bruni had these words for food fraud:

“Every time we eat something that we haven’t grown and reaped and cooked ourselves — which means, for most of us, every time we eat — we’re taking a leap of faith: that it was protected from contamination; that it was inspected properly; that the cook didn’t mix in something objectionable; that the waiter didn’t drop it on the floor. We’re in a position of both extraordinary vulnerability and extreme trust. And while we can ratchet up our vigilance, that goes only so far. We can be local. We can be seasonal. We can be sustainable and organic and buy our pork somewhere other than where we buy our throw pillows. But we can never be entirely sure.”

Therein lies the heart of the issue. How can we as consumers know that we’re getting what we’re paying for? Are we just doomed to be duped?

Spink pointed out that, while you can get scammed just about anywhere, you are less likely to be swindled by the specialty store or small business owner. They aren’t just looking at the first sale; they want to keep you as a customer for every sale after that. But one of the biggest challenges with food fraud is how it overlaps with food safety. When ingredients are tampered with by adding an allergen (as in ground peanut shells added to cumin), you not only have a fraudulent product, but also a potentially fatal one.

“It’s a double whammy—food fraud and food safety,” said Karil Kochenderfer, the North American representative for Paris-based Global Food Safety Initiative, an industry-driven global organization focused on food safety. “The two are very much overlapped.”

Her company strives for a clean supply chain with some of the biggest food suppliers and manufacturers. As far as she’s concerned, your product shouldn’t be on the shelf if you can’t prove it’s safe. Agreeing with Spink, her advice was to buy trusted brands.

“They’ve got too much invested in their product and brand to screw up with their customers,” she said. “It took too long to gain that trust.”

professional olive oil tasting
Alina Lawrence conducting an olive oil sensory analysis for a client.

Regardless of how large or small a company may be, the size is not what determines the quality of the product. Alina Lawrence, owner of Olivette in Darien and certified sensory analyst and professional olive oil taster, said 80% to 90% of olive oil labeled as extra virgin is not. There are as many examples in giant supermarkets as there are in little mom-and-pop shops. You need to find a purveyor who is educated about the products they sell.

“Unless you are exposed to a better quality product, you don’t even know what you’re missing,” she remarked. “Most people, unfortunately, are used to bad oil. They think that’s how it should taste because they don’t know the difference.”

Lawrence relayed a recent trip to a local grocery store. Out of curiosity, she perused the olive oil section. One bottle of imported Italian olive oil listed at $32 had a bottling date of 2014. Olive oil, she said, should be consumed within the year it was harvested. In fact, she doesn’t even sell anything in her own shop that goes beyond a year. Oil gets rancid. It’s a fruit juice and should taste fruity with a slight bitterness and a “pungent” or peppery after taste on the back of the palate.

“Good quality olive oil can’t be cheap. It costs so much money to produce a good quality oil,” said Lawrence. “You see a beautiful label on a beautiful bottle, but that doesn’t mean the expensive product inside is good quality.”

That hasn’t stopped people from trying and that’s where the profit comes in. If you’re substituting top-notch olive oil with refined oil that’s been processed and devoid of any flavor or health benefits, you can make a killing.

Honey, often diluted with corn syrup, is just as vulnerable to tampering. As Marina Marchese of Red Bee Honey in Weston will tell you, it’s probably not real honey if what you taste is sickly sweet. You should detect floral notes and nuances of flavor between different types of honey. She also would like consumers to keep in mind that it’s a seasonal product. You can’t make honey year-round and the high quality honeys do not show up inside a teddy bear.

“Everybody wants local honey. There’s too much demand for too little supply,” she said. “Big corporations import huge vats of it and there’s certainly nothing wrong with imported honey. But large quantities have to be pasteurized. They become homogenous because it’s being blended. That’s when you’re losing flavor.”

For some telltale signs of good quality honey, Marchese noted the color will change from season to season. The pollen will make honey a bit cloudy. If you’ve got a crystal clear product, it’s been pasteurized. Honey should crystallize, corn syrup doesn’t. And, if you flip a honey jar upside down and the little air bubble goes too quickly to the top, it’s probably watered down. And like olive oil, honey has an expiration date. Do not keep it longer than two years. It just doesn’t taste as good.

But, food fraud doesn’t stop at the supermarket shelf. It rears its ugly head at the meat counter, too. Ryan Fibiger of Fleisher’s Craft Butchery, with Connecticut retail locations in Westport and Greenwich, feels strongly about what’s happening in the meat industry.

“The government allows farmers to be fraudulent,” he said of those in the industry who profit from deceitful practices. “You can apply for a label from the USDA, but they don’t verify it. That’s a clear violation of trust.”

cattle grazing on pasture
Fleischer’s Craft Butchery’s cattle grazing on pasture.

Fibiger made the point that we’re lucky in this area to have so many farmers who practice responsibly. He takes his employees out every year to visit the pool of farmers they source from, almost like a farm pilgrimage. Far better to tell your customers about where the meat comes from if you’ve had a direct conversation with that farmer yourself.

“If you’re buying a product from us, you get the whole story,” he explained. “Most customers don’t understand where their meat comes from. People don’t want to know that their food had a face.”

Whether it’s a retailer or a butcher, he urged that consumers need a trusted food “advisor.” These are the experts who know how that food was grown, handled, or manufactured. They know if the labels mean what they say. To him, transparency is the key. Fibiger said he still relies on labels like 100% grass-fed and organic because there are certain regulations in place in order to obtain those certifications. Other labels just don’t carry the same weight.

But what bothers him the most is how inhumane most meat processing plants can be in this country. Animals are confined in tight spaces, fed corn and grain to fatten them up quickly, and often pumped up with a preemptive strike of antibiotics. He quipped that it’s probably easier to get into Fort Knox than it is to see a feedlot thanks to ag-gag laws.

“There’s nothing on a package that will tell you how an animal was raised,” Fibiger remarked. “Eight years out from Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc. and we’re still that far away from transparency in our system. That really bothers me.”

So what can you do? Your homework. Read. Question. Complain if there’s something wrong. Buy from someone you trust. You alone vote with your fork—and your wallet.

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