After receiving the American Farmland Trust newsletter, I was prepared to launch into how one cannot love food and not also be interested in where it came from, who produced it, how it was made, and how important farms are, when I was bombarded by the European horse meat scandal and the recently released USP report on Food Fraud!
I became totally hooked on the report and follow up stories and I have really been delving into it, in part, because one of my Slow Food online groups has been deep in discussion (yet again) about food fraud causes and solutions. I’ve been concerned about this shameful problem for years, along with the ridiculously high cost of healthy foods vs. cheap junk food, and this just got me going again!
Sidebar: Reporter Steven Brill wrote an absolutely stunning piece published in Time magazine, about the needlessly (and I’d argue, criminally) exorbitant cost of medical care (I’ve spewed about that too!), I wish to hell he’d do a similar piece on the cost of food. This man deserves a Pulitzer and our admiration. Who knows why no one thought to do this sooner: http://healthland.time.com/2013/02/20/bitter-pill-why-medical-bills-are-killing-us/10/
First of all, Food Fraud is not new. Sad to say, we as a society haven’t gotten a hold of the problem and eradicated it, like the disease it is. A fascinating book written by Bee Wilson, called Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee gives numerous examples from the past of what is still occurring today, and introduces one of the champions of safe food from more than a century ago.
And don’t forget the story about Chicago’s meat packing plants that set off a flurry of laws—and established the FDA—after muckraker Upton Sinclair’s book, “The Jungle” shocked everyone in 1906. Surely, the FDA improved the situation, but the laws never had the teeth or claws required to end such unsanitary practices once and for all. But at least there was a reaction en masse! No one seems to have reacted resoundingly about this frightening report!
Looks like food safety comes down to personal vigilance. What doesn’t come down to personal integrity, one wonders? Word on the street, and according to articles that will be linked to later in the post, Food Fraud won’t stop because it’s good for business and the U.S. economy!
The report was initially published in the April 5, 2012 issue of Journal of Food Science, by The United States Pharmacopeial Convention, which sets U.S. standards for food ingredients, medicines and similar products, and monitors the same (www.USP.org). The report was updated via press release January 23, 2013. http://www.usp.org/about-usp/press-room. Look under ‘USP Highlights’ for the release.
USP describes itself as a unique, independent non-profit, yet it looks closely aligned with the FDA/USAID, and I’m not sure where it gets its funding. The report, which has a global view of food fraud, received huge publicity, but I have no idea how much its opinions weigh in with food companies and regulators. So far, I’m not aware of any public hue and cry.
I cannot access the report anywhere, but the release is detailed, and I also looked at several media follow up stories, which were nearly verbatim across several print and broadcast outlets. Al Jazeera and CNN gave a more in depth analysis, albeit without interviewing food companies, suppliers, etc.
Again Food Fraud and unsafe foods isn’t new and many of these findings aren’t a revelation, but what is new, is the alarming acknowledgement that this problem has INCREASED by 60% since last year! If this doesn’t give the growing organics and local sourcing movement a boost with mainstream consumers, what will? One expert (sorry cannot remember who or which broadcast outlet) said he thought 10% of foods in U.S. grocery stores were fraudulent.
The report release listed several foods that were notoriously mislabeled, contained impure or lower quality ingredients than printed on the label or lacked ingredients some consumers may logically assume were included. These products were tea, coffee, juices, milk, spices, maple syrup, olive oil and honey.
Neither the release (nor the report apparently) actually identify food brands or producers—which would be obviously useful and helpful to know, but the articles appearing later in this post, do list store chains and/or brands of certain products.
Sidebar: Adulteration is deliberate tampering vs. unintentional contamination.
The USP takes a global perspective on Food Fraud, but the release did highlight particular problems in various countries, including a serious seafood problem in the United States. Evidently, mislabeled seafood is being sold in stores and served at restaurants, resulting in undisclosed substitutions. Particularly worrisome are substitutions with fish species that are actually quite dangerous to digest or harmful to pregnancies.
With limits being placed on catches because so many fish species are decreasing, and fishing vessels heading for waters farther away to extend fishing grounds, one can see that the situation is indeed ripe to encourage ‘something’ to fill any void in the fishing industry.
I expected the fish fraud to cause a huge brouhaha, but it was trumped by adulterated olive oil, which according to the USP release, is a serious problem in China; but as evidenced by many other reports, it is a big problem in the U.S. too.
Forbes.com, Consumer Reports.com and Consumer Digest.com wrote informative articles on the fish fraud, with Consumer Reports going particularly in depth.
Mindful of my prior comment about olive oil in China, previous independent studies by UC-Davis, found several fraudulent brands of olive oil being sold in California stores, including Whole Foods. An article on chowhound.com addresses this and names brands or stores. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/720875. Check out the reader comments by Slowfoodfast.com.
Why is olive oil in the spotlight more than seafood? Maybe it’s easier to obtain and more affordable to test in studies or because so many people (like me!) use it?
At any rate, the problem with olive oil helps illustrate just how insidious Food Fraud is. The problem here is that many different oils, of varying quality, are mixed together and sold as 100% olive oil, or extra virgin olive oil, which is considered a premium quality and pricey.
Worse than that, I read on the USP Food Fraud Database that “rancid,” “Swill or gutter oil (refined oil from recycled food and livestock waste)” were found in olive oil brands. Nearly every type of cooking oil had this “refined oil” ingredient, and in a few horrid instances, “cooking oil” contained engine oil! YECH!
For more on the olive oils scam: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/13/070813fa_fact_mueller.
A Rose is Still a Rose
All tissues aren’t Kleenex, all red wines aren’t Burgundy and all sparkling wines aren’t Champagne. As consumers, we tend to forget that ubiquitously used product names can be an actual trademark, protected brand or specific product.
A series of articles by Larry Olmsted in Forbes.com brings this misunderstanding to light. This sweeping article covers quite a few foods we take for granted.
More Fraudulent Foods
Would you like lemon or lawn grass in your tea? This Food Fraud was picked up by the media, but I couldn’t find specifics in the Food Fraud Database. Not identifying victimized countries, I read that a cereal or grain product had “fake rice made from plastic resin and potato starch;” a product supposedly containing ice cream actually had “washing powder;” and many wines, spirits and vinegars had ingredients of “non-authentic botanical origin,” (which may refer to unknown sources for grapes and other ingredients) and ethanol. What I don’t know, is if these are products on American store shelves.
Honey is another product on the list that is buzzing in controversy and I’ll get into that with a follow up blog, as I’m partial to natural pollinators in general.
And, surprise: not all Kobe beef is Kobe Beef! I’m not a big red meat consumer, but Kobe beef is trendy on upscale restaurants, so hardcore carnivores may want to check this out. http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2012/04/12/foods-biggest-scam-the-great-kobe-beef-lie/
Prevention Magazine provides a generic list of the various products and problems discovered, but doesn’t list actual brands or indicate if all products in the category were tainted.
Why the Fraud?
The reasons given by food experts and reporters as to why Food Fraud happens, and why it is increasing, is that consumers demand cheap food and suppliers are going overseas to find cheaper items, where there are either no safety/quality regulations or they’re not enforced.
Another factor is that Americans in particular have lost their ‘farm to fork’ connection and no longer know what real food tastes like and couldn’t identify a authentic flavor from fake. We have become used to fast, cheap, fake foods. It seems like a busy parent’s dream to arrive home tired, and only have to grab a box, add water, stir and microwave, while frying up inexpensive meat, mix it all together and eat in a few minutes.
And (no big surprise) almost everyone said that food companies want minimum costs for maximum profits.
Speaking of cost, high prices do not in any way ensure the consumer of quality. Actually, Food Fraud experts say the more expensive products are more likely to be tampered with because there will be a greater profit margin!
Larry Olmsted of Forbes.com writes, quite convincingly, that such fraud is accepted and ignored by government regulators because it enables U.S. companies to compete and profit by making knock offs—just like the Chinese copy a computer chip design or a city corner kiosk sells fake Prada bags.
Hmm, businesses duping their own customers to make a profit, with the approval of the government? All of which we support by shopping, dining and paying taxes. Boy, are we easy sheeple.
Obviously, the real costs to consider are to health, the environment, fair wages, humane treatment of animals, allowing farmers and growers to work their own farms, and a myriad of others. Most foods contain soy or corn and sugars, all of which are subsidized by the U.S. Government. If we factored in all the calories, chemicals and real costs, you would see just how expensive cheap food is.
My burning question is always: Why is real, nutritious food so expensive? I’ll explore this question and ways to combat it in my next blog post.
Avoid the Fraud
Consumers do finally understand that if anything is to change it’s up to us, because obviously, ain’t nobody else doing it for us! We need the watchdogs to alert and warn us, but unless we get involved, nothing will change.
Any book written by Michael Pollan is a nutritious nugget of knowledge! He simply explains the food world, good and bad, and how to navigate it. I love him. http://michaelpollan.com/books/
Suggestions on how to avoid purchasing fraudulent foods were similar regardless of source, and they were ones that foodies practice anyway. I pulled the following from Eatocracy.com and Consumer Reports.
- If there’s a “whole” alternative, use it. Buy lemons instead of lemon juice; pomegranates instead of pomegranate juice; loose leaf tea; saffron threads; etc. Also, purchase the whole spice (peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks) and grind/grate it yourself.
- Buy from reputable sources and brands you trust, including your local farmers market, co-op and natural food store. Know the who, when and where of the product.
- Don’t buy into the newest health trend. Food fraud appears more commonly in high-value ingredients that are linked to health benefits and consumers pay a premium for.
- Beware “white tuna” – it’s often not a member of the tuna family at all. Escolar is commonly marketed as white tuna, super white tuna, butterfish and walu. Escolar is edible – and legal – but the Food and Drug Administration does not encourage its consumption. It includes a waxy substance, called gempylotoxin, that humans can’t digest and can cause purgative effects.
- Educate yourself and train your palate. Does it taste, smell and look right? If you’re wary, search online to see if that particular brand has been reported as fraudulent before.
- http://blog.peaceworks.net/2010/01/false-food-labeling. I’m looking for an update on this story.
- Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee by Bee Wilson:http://books.google.com/books?id=Sp5M rZVizAC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false. I started reading Swindled and it is quite compelling.
- Frederick Accum’s Treatise of Adulterations of Food Food and Drink (1822 edition). http://books.google.com/books?id=Sp5M-rZVizAC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA4#v=onepage&q&f=false