January 21, 2009

Is Your Food For Real?

What would you do if you learned that some of your favorite foods turned out to be counterfeit?   It's a question that's made big news over the past two years, with Chinese food companies in particular being blamed for producing lethal changes to baby food, pet food and dairy products by tainting them with the chemical melamine.

The chemical gives the product the appearance of meeting the required level of protein.

But what about U.S.-based food producers? What, if any, counterfeit foods do we have to fear from American companies?

A USA Today report cites experts that said dangerous U.S.-produced foods are relatively few. However, the report said, producers have been known to practice something called "economic adulteration", in which small amounts of something cheap is substituted for something more expensive. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the food industry, but considering the large number of safety issues the agency has to deal with, economic adulteration has "really been back-burnered,", Bruce Silverglade of the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest told USA Today.

So just what should consumers be on the watch for?


Fish is the most frequently counterfeited food Americans purchase. In particular, a practice known as "species adulteration", in which producers sell a lower-cost fish such as pen-raised Atlantic salmon as wild Alaska salmon instead.

A Consumer Reports investigation tested 23 wild-caught salmon fillets purchased throughout the country in 2005-2006, and found that only 10 were actually wild salmon.  The remainder were farmed.

And a 2004 study by scientists at University of North Carolina found that 77% of fish labeled red snapper were actually something else.  And a Chicago Sun-Times investigation last year tested fish at 17 sushi restaurants, and discovered that fish being sold as red snapper was actually mostly tilapia.

"It's really just fraud, plain and simple," Gavin Gibbons of the industry group National Fisheries Institute told USA Today.

However, scallops appear to be one thing consumers need not worry about.  While rumors of skate wings cut into circles and sold as scallops abound, Randolph says the FDA has never found an actual case of it.

Salmon is trickier.  But Randolph offered a tip: Farmed salmon gets its color from dyes added to food pellets the fish are fed, while wild salmon gets its color from the plankton they eat.

"When you cook it, the wild salmon retains its color, and in the aquaculture salmon, the color tends to leak out," she explained.

Consumers with questions can call the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition hotline at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.

Olive oil

Americans consumed about 575 million pounds of this luxury oil last year, according to the North American Olive Oil Association.  Sixty-three percent was the higher-grade extra virgin, derived from the first pressing of the olives.

However, olive oil, heralded for its heart-healthy properties, is one of the most frequently counterfeited food products, says Martin Stutsman, the FDA's consumer safety officer for edible oils.

Although there is no national data on olive-oil fakery, Connecticut began testing it two years ago following multiple complaints.

"We were coming across a lot of products labeled as extra-virgin olive oil that contained up to 90% soybean oil," Jerry Farrell Jr., Connecticut's commissioner of consumer protection, told USA Today.

Most name brands were fine, Farrell said, but off-brands sold in discount retailers were a problem.

In fact, Connecticut was so concerned that in November, it became the first state in the country to establish olive oil standards, enabling officials to levy fines and remove adulterated products from store shelves.

California is looking to establish its own standards this year.  Indeed, reports from testers indicate as much as 60% to 70% of the olive oil sold as extra virgin in the state is of lower-quality, Dan Flynn of the Olive Center at the University of California-Davis told USA Today.

The easiest thing is for counterfeiters to add 10% vegetable oil in extra virgin, Stutsman explained.

"It will still smell as it should, but you've saved 10% of the cost."

However, American Olive Oil Association president Bob Bauer says it's more of a problem in restaurants than in retail supermarkets.


Honey can be easily faked, since it is a natural product that consists mostly of sugar. 

"If you can substitute a less expensive source of sugar for the expensive one, you can save some money and gain market share," said Stutsman.

In the past, cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup was mostly used to thin out honey.  However, that was chemically easy to identify using an isotope test that would easily spot the adulteration.

Counterfeiters have since adapted with the use of beet sugar, whose profile is similar to honey. As a result, the FDA switched to a more complex, multistep test.

"Once we started catching people, they create a moving target. They'll switch to something more difficult (to detect)," said Stutsman.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is another high-value product that can be easily adulterated. Sellers can simply dilute the boiled-down sap of the sugar maple tree with water or sugar, attempting to "get more bang for the buck," says Kristin Haas, food safety director in the Vermont's Agency for Agriculture, Food and Markets.

The state is the USA's largest supplier to flapjacks.

So far, its testing program has found fraud only three times in the past 17 years, says Haas, but the state is taking the matter seriously.

"A couple of years back, there was a gentleman who actually went to prison because of this issue," she said.

Vermont may increase its testing programs during these tough economic times, when the incentive to cheat is greater, and the state may have to work harder to maintain its pure premier product.


Produced in the tropics, vanilla pods can be soaked in milk or stored in sugar to add a slight vanilla scent to foods.  However, the pods are typically soaked in alcohol that is then used as a flavoring.

But a chemical copy known as vanillin was created in the laboratory during the 19th century.  It is supposed to be labeled as an artificial flavor when used in foods, and usually is.

According to the FDA, One "too good to be true" product to watch out for is A VERY inexpensive vanilla extract sold in Mexico and Latin America. The product is made with the toxic substance coumarin, banned for use in U.S. foods since 1954.  The substance is chemically related to the blood thinner warfarin and can be dangerous.


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