By: Eddie Levin
The expensive “sheep’s milk” cheese in a Manhattan market was really made from cow’s milk. And a jar of “Sturgeon caviar” was, in fact, Mississippi paddlefish.
Salt is bad. Sugar is bad. Carbs are bad. Cholesterol is bad. Calories are bad. Fat is bad.
Bad also are the whole, natural foods that sustained our ancestors during an era relatively free of the modern plagues of cancer and heart disease – foods like eggs, raw milk, butter, cheese and red meat.”Food fraud” has been documented in fruit juice, olive oil, spices, vinegar, wine, spirits and maple syrup, and appears to pose a significant problem in the seafood industry. Victims range from the shopper at the local supermarket to multimillion companies, including E&J Gallo and Heinz USA.So what’s “good” for us? Soy-burgers and tofu, margarine and non-dairy creamer, canola and corn oil, synthetic egg substitutes and “low-fat” dessert toppings – in fact, everything labeled “low-fat.”If you really want to get paranoid, peek into the USP Food Fraud Database.
It’s a searchable trove of humankind’s ceaseless efforts to swindle, hoodwink, and defraud with food, worldwide.That’s where we’ve learned that hucksters sometimes use Sudan red dye to amp up paprika, which in its natural state is often a demure reddish brown. Sudan red is a potent carcinogen, banned for use in food worldwide. Eeek!Spices, milk and vegetable oils are the most common fraudulent foodstuffs, according to Markus Lipp, senior director of food standards for US Pharmacopeia.Spices, milk and vegetable oils are the most common fraudulent foodstuffs, according to Markus Lipp, senior director of food standards for US Pharmacopeia. “If I go to India, I may find there is completely fake milk on the market,” Lipp said. “Milk that never saw a cow.”Something is rotten in America’s food bureaucracy. Indeed, as documented in stunningly eye-opening Whistleblower magazine, “FOOD FRAUD,” Americans have been seriously deceived about food and what constitutes a “healthy diet” for a very long time.
The nonprofit organization US Pharmacopeia makes its living by establishing industry standards for pharmaceuticals and foods. The food fraud database first launched in 2010, but a big upgrade in January added reports from scholarly journals and the media in 2011 and 2012. The list now includes about 2,000 foods. The goal is to be useful to regulators and purchasers, but since the database is free, we civilians can snoop around in it, too.
Price is clearly a driver of deception. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and efforts to fake it date back to the ancient Greeks. The USP database lists 109 phony saffron substitutes, including marigold flowers, corn silk, gypsum, chalk and strands of cotton or plastic thread.Take clouding agents, for example. They’re used to give juices, jams and sports drinks an appealing cloudy appearance. Palm oil, which is cheap and food safe, is frequently used. But the database details problems with palm oil being replaced by phthalates in Taiwan.
Those are chemicals used in plastic manufacturing — they’re not meant for human consumption — and there’s concern that they could interfere with human hormones.That kind of substitution may not be a concern in the United States. But we do have to deal with “maple” syrup that has no relationship to a tree, and watered-down lemon juice. Juices including apple and pomegranate are particularly vulnerable to fraud, Lipp says, and can be faked entirely with water, sugar and citric acid.Foods become “fraudulent” when the manufacturer isn’t up front with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration or other regulatory agencies about what’s going into its products, Dr. Markus Lipp, senior director of food standards at USP told the Daily News.”In general, the U.S. food supply is very safe, because of the vigilance of the FDA, the food industry and consumers,” he said. “With the database, we try to promote informed decision making.”The USP added 800 new records to its database, reflecting the years 2011-2012. Here are some of the most fraudulent foods it found:
Olive oil: Some olive oils are diluted with less-expensive vegetable oils, the report says.
Spices: Powdered spices like saffron, turmeric and chili powder may be diluted or replaced with less-expensive spices or fillers.
White tuna: The “white tuna” on your sushi menu may actually be less-expensive escolar, a fish that is banned in other countries including Italy and Japan. It has a high content of waxy esters that contribute to a type of food poisoning called gempylotoxism. Escolar is legal in the U.S., but the Food and Drug Administration advises against selling or consuming it.
Lemon juice, other fruit juices and jams: Foreign manufacturers sometimes sneak clouding agents into these to make them look fresh-squeezed. Roughly 4,000 people in Taiwan became sick from ingesting products laced with dangerous pthalates, a chemical also found in plastic, according to the report.
Honey and maple syrup: High fructose corn syrup or other sugars might be snuck in to enhance sweetness.
Coffee: Fillers can be added to ground coffees to increase their volume.
Rhode Island Rep. Joseph McNamara is currently trying to pass legislation that would make fried squid the official state appetizer. Since Rhode Island is the squid capital of the world – hey, they have to be good at something – chances are the fried rings served there are exactly what they claim to be. Elsewhere, however, they may be serving you deep fried pig anus and calling it calamari.
In January, This American Life told a story about a multi-state pork processing company selling pig rectum – referred to, by the industry, as “bung” – as imitation calamari. Ben Calhoun did everything possible to refute the source on the story, but dozens of experts could not shoot down the possibility that people are ordering squid and getting pork bung instead. Calhoun did not find any evidence of this practice happening in the US or abroad. However, he did have a chef serve a plate of fried bung next to a plate of fried calamari.
No one could tell the difference.
A recent study by Oceana found the act of seafood fraud has been uncovered both in the United States and abroad at levels ranging from 25 to more than 70 percent for commonly swapped species such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod. Oceana collected more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states to determine if they were honestly labeled. DNA testing found that one-third (33 percent) of the 1,215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
Samples sold as snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates (87 and 59 percent, respectively), with the majority of the samples identified by DNA analysis as something other than what was found on the label. Only seven of the 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were actually red snapper. The other 113 samples were another fish. Halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean sea bass were also mislabeled between 19 and 38 percent of the time, while salmon was mislabeled 7 percent of the time.
If you think you can tell – or that you’re safe when visiting a reputable sushi or seafood joint – think again.Oceana found that 44 percent of all the retail outlets visited sold mislabeled fish. Restaurants, grocery stores and sushi venues all sold mislabeled fish and chances of being swindled varied greatly depending on where the seafood was purchased.“Our study identified strong national trends in seafood mislabeling levels among retail types, with sushi venues ranking the highest (74 percent), followed by restaurants (38 percent) and then grocery stores (18 percent). These same trends among retail outlets were generally observed at the regional level,” Oceana said in their summary report.So what of the mantra “what you don’t know won’t hurt you?”
Well, aside from this practice being illegal and dishonest, it can actually thwart the good intentions of Americans looking to improve their health.“As our results demonstrate, a high level of mislabeling nationwide indicates that seafood fraud harms not only the consumer’s pocket book, but also every honest vendor or fisherman along the supply chain. These fraudulent practices also carry potentially serious concerns for the health of consumers, and for the health of our oceans and vulnerable fish populations.”While it’s despicable, it’s also easy to see how and why unscrupulous people would mislabel a cheap fish for an expensive one.
But what about honey? Or extra virgin olive oil?
These are products most of us believe we could spot as fraud. However, most of the honey sold in American chain stores does not meet international quality standards.
Testing done for Food Safety News found that most store honey isn’t honey, with ultra-filtering techniques removing pollen and hiding the honey’s origins.
“More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce. The results show that the pollen frequently has been filtered out of products labeled ‘honey,’” wrote Food Safety News.
That means these products won’t pass the quality standards set by most of the world’s food safety agencies. Without pollen, there is no way of knowing whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources. The study found that 76 percent of samples bought at grocery stores had all the pollen removed; 100 percent of honey sampled from drugstores had no pollen; and 77 percent of the honey sampled from big box stores had the pollen filtered out.
Fear not, foodies. The study found that all of the samples found at farmers markets, co-ops and whole food stores such as Trader Joe’s were the real deal. But if you can’t taste the difference – and you probably can’t – why should you care if the pollen has been removed?
“Raw honey is thought to have many medicinal properties,” Kathy Egan, dietitian at College of the Holy Cross in Mass., told Food Safety News. “Stomach ailments, anemia and allergies are just a few of the conditions that may be improved by consumption of unprocessed honey.”
Recently, a new study on food fraud was done the by U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), a scientific nonprofit organization that helps set standards for the “quality, safety and benefit” of foods and medicines.
Their research found that olive oil, milk, saffron and coffee joined honey and fish as the most commonly fraudulent products on the market. Most of the reported food fraud comes from producers adding fillers or diluting the real deal with less expensive ingredients. Clouding agents were found in 877 food products from 315 different companies. Vegetable oil was discovered in bottles of olive oil. Grape juice was passed for pomegranate juice. Given that even the best palates can be fooled by food tech trickery, it’s difficult to completely avoid being duped.
There are some tips, however, to get what you pay for.
1. Buy the good stuff.
Squeeze your own limes instead of buying a bottle of lime juice. Grind your own spices and brew loose tea instead of packets.
2. Shop smart
Whole food items are a safer bet. They cost more, so it’s up to you to decide if that’s a deal breaker. But think about this: Most of the fraudulent food listed in this article do not feature healing benefits. If you’re buying a fake, you’re saving cash but hurting your body. Join a co-op, a CSA or shop carefully at your local whole food grocery store.
3. Forget about white tuna
As mentioned above, escolar is typically passed off as white tuna. Escolar is edible, but it contains gempylotoxin, a substance humans can’t digest. You know how the rest of that story goes.