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Beware of Food Fraud

by Andy Bellatti

You are probably familiar with insurance fraud, investment fraud, and healthcare fraud. But can you guess what other type of fraud rings in at a global cost of at least $10 to $15 billion a year (and that’s a conservative figure)? If you guessed food fraud, you are correct.

The FDA defines food fraud as “the fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product…for economic gain.” That can include the dilution of a food product, such as the watering down of juice, as well as adding a cheaper substance to an expensive processed food and passing it off as pure. It can even include wholesale fakery, such as passing off cheaper canola oil as more expensive olive oil.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association—the food industry’s largest trade association—estimates that food fraud affects roughly 10 percent of commercial food products, including olive oil, seafood, coffee, vinegar, spices, milk, and liquid sweeteners such as honey.

Financial concerns aside, food fraud can also be dangerous. Peanut powder substituted for more expensive almond powder, for example, poses a risk to anyone with an allergy to peanuts. And in 1981, toxic industrial rapeseed oil that was sold as "olive oil" resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people in Spain.

Thankfully, most cases of food fraud aren't hazardous, but they are a rip-off, and, depending on what's been added to the food, may affect the nutritional value or taste. Here are some tips to help you avoid being bamboozled when buying the four foods most likely to be adulterated or mislabeled: olive oil, fish, coffee, and balsamic vinegar.

Olive oil fraud

A disturbingly large percentage of imported "olive oil" in the United States is actually diluted with cheaper, highly refined oils such as soybean, corn, and canola. Olive oil may also be adulterated with hazelnut oil, which could pose risks to people with an allergy to those nuts.

Discover the Health Benefits of Pure Olive Oil.

Olive oil fraud got so rampant that, in 2010, the USDA adopted new standards for grading olive oil as extra virgin, virgin, and refined. However, the USDA standards are voluntary, and not all olive oil manufacturers follow them.

Until the situation gets sorted out—and it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon—keep these tips in mind when buying olive oil:

  • Look for the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) logo on a bottle, or order directly from its certified producers. In order to earn the COOC’s “certified extra virgin” seal, olive oil producers must submit a laboratory analysis and have samples evaluated by the COOC Taste Panel.
  • For international olive oils, keep an eye out for the Protected Designation of Origin logo, which guarantees that these oils were indeed produced, processed, and prepared in a specific region of the labeled country using traditional production methods—as opposed to containing oils from elsewhere (often soybean or hazelnut oil) that were simply bottled in the labeled country. French olive oils will sport an “AOC” (Appelation d’origine contrôlée) logo. Italian olive oil will show a “DOP” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) logo, and Spanish olive oil will have a “DO” (Denominación de Origen) seal.
  • While a high price does not necessarily guarantee a legitimate product, a $6.99 bottle of extra virgin olive oil is very likely a knock-off.

Fish fraud

The problem of adulteration and mislabeling of seafood first made headlines in 2005, when a New York Times investigation revealed that, among samples of "wild salmon" purchased at eight New York City stores, six of the stores were actually selling farm-raised salmon. Some of this farmed salmon was sold at up to a 500 percent upcharge. Price gouging aside, many consumers avoid or even boycott farmed salmon because of the toll fish farms can have on the aquatic environment. Wild salmon may also be a healthier choice than farmed salmon, which some research has found to contain elevated levels of PCBs and other industrial contaminants.

Salmon is not the only victim of seafood fraud. In 2013, the international conservation group Oceana tested more than 1,200 samples of fish sold in the United States, and found that a third of the fish were mislabeled. The following year, Oceana investigated seafood fraud in 29 different countries and every continent except for Antarctica. Fraudulent labels were most commonly put on fish sold as cod, grouper, red snapper, and wild salmon. Red snapper was the most mislabeled fish in the world. Levels of fraudulent red snapper ranged from 46 percent to 100 percent in some countries.

Also see How Safe Is Your Imported Seafood?

There may be some light at the end of the tunnel for seafood consumers. In 2014, the Presidential Task Force on Combatting Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud was instituted, and in 2015 it made 15 recommendations to reduce seafood fraud. The recommendations include a traceability program for popular seafood such as tuna, shrimp, red snapper, Pacific cod, Atlantic cod, grouper, and some species of crab.

But until there are guidelines in place, you can help protect yourself from seafood fraud by finding a reputable fishmonger you can trust, buying whole fish when possible, and asking lots of questions (both at the fish market and at restaurants). For more tips, see Seafood Labeling Fraud.

Food Fraud: A Record Bust

Trafficking in fake and substandard foods is big business, and efforts to stop this global phenomenon are ongoing. In 2016, two of the world’s biggest law enforcement agencies, Interpol and Europol, made their biggest bust yet.

Coffee fraud

When it comes to adulterated coffee, the Grocery Manufacturers Association explains that ground coffee may be “cut with leaves and twigs, as well as roasted corn, ground roasted barley, and roasted ground parchment. Instant coffee may include chicory, cereals, caramel, more parchment, starch, malt, and figs.” The main motivation here, of course, is cutting costs and increasing profit margins.

This type of fraud has recently escalated in Brazil—the world’s largest producer of coffee—and led local researchers to develop a high-performance liquid chromatography tool that can easily spot the addition of corn, soybeans, or acai seeds to ground coffee, which are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

Since adulterated coffee contains lower levels of actual coffee beans, it may offer fewer potential health benefits than non-adulterated coffee. Observational studies have found that people who drink coffee have lower risks of Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and liver disease. This may be due to coffee’s various phytochemicals, although controlled clinical trials would need to be done to prove this.

Find out more about Coffee and Your Health.

Unfortunately, people who buy ground coffee today have no sure way to confirm that their favorite brand is unadulterated. The liquid chromatography tool invented in Brazil is still in its preliminary stages.

What to do instead? Purchase whole beans that you can grind at home or have ground for you at the store.

Balsamic vinegar: real or imitation?

Top of the line balsamic vinegar, officially known as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, stems from grape varieties grown in one of two provinces in northern Italy—Reggio Emilia and Modena. The "grape must"—grape juice that contains stems, seeds, and skins—is cooked over low heat until it is quite thick and dark brown, then left to rest, activating the natural fermentation.

Then comes the waiting game: The vinegar is poured into smaller and smaller barrels as it ages, anywhere from 12 to 50 years. Each barrel is made of specific woods that help give balsamic vinegar its unique, multilayered taste that can turn a simple bowl of strawberries into a delightful dessert.

Imitation balsamic vinegar starts off with wine, rather than must, and usually has sweeteners and coloring added during its quick processing to give it the appearance and flavor of aged balsamic.

A high price does not guarantee authenticity, but you will never come across authentic Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale at a bargain price. (It may instead be the less expensive Aceto Balsamico di Modena.)

As with olive oil, the DOP seal on balsamic vinegar from Italy guarantees that the bottle was produced and bottled in Italy using traditional methods and following strictly regulated guidelines set forth by the Italian government.

To spot the legitimate balsamic vinegar varieties, you want to see the word “tradizionale” on the label, and “grape must” or “aged grape must” should be listed as an ingredient.

Words to the wise

"Food fraud" has existed throughout the ages. In ancient times, fig and date syrup were reportedly added to honey, for example. But our increasingly global food system, which completely disconnects us from our food producers, has intensified the problem. If you are concerned about the purity and sourcing of your food, a good recourse, if you can afford it, is to seek out local sources and small reputable companies. An added plus is that eating locally benefits small-scale farmers and supports the community.

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