Food Fraud: Consumers May Be Deceived By Mislabeled Products

[Watch ABC News Video: Food Fraud]

Lawrence LeBlond for – Your Universe Online

As consumers, we often rely on what we read on labels as to what´s inside. When it comes to most food, we really have no choice but to rely on what the label is telling us. But it could be very likely that we are being deceived.

Experts, working for the US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), have discovered rising numbers of fake ingredients in products such as seafood, olive oil, spices, honey, fruit juice, and even wine. They call this economically motivated adulteration, or simply “food fraud.”

“Food products are not always what they purport to be,” Markus Lipp, senior director for Food Standards for USP, told ABC News.

In a new database set to be released today, the USP warns consumers that the amount of food fraud found is up by more than 50 percent, and as much as 60 percent this year.

Shaun Kennedy, of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD), said: “10 percent of the food you buy in the grocery shelf is probably adulterated.”

This either means it is mislabeled, diluted or misrepresented. Some of the biggest culprits are fish products.

“You think you´re getting crab, you´re getting fake crab,” he said.

Fruit juices are equally as bad. Sometimes juice is labeled as fresh squeezed, or premium, when actually it is from concentrate.

“In some cases, pomegranate juice has been found to be nothing more than water, citric acid and red food coloring,” he added.

And as much as 65 percent of the olive oil consumers buy has been found to actually be other low grade oils.

“Consumers have almost gotten used to this flavor, these off flavors that reflect the defects you find in bad olive oil,” said Dan Flynn with the UC Davis Olive Center.

For their database, the USP examined more than 1,300 published studies and media reports from 1980 to 2010. The update to the database includes nearly 800 new food fraud entries, nearly all published in 2011 and 2012.

USP said that liquid and ground foods are the easiest foods to adulterate. Olive oils, lemon juice, tea, and spices are all foods that may or may not be what you think they are. Even milk, honey, syrup and coffee may not be what they say on the label.

As for lemon juice, the National Consumers League did their own probe and found that four different products that claimed to be 100 percent lemon juice were far from pure.

“One had 10 percent lemon juice, it said it had 100 percent, another had 15 percent lemon juice, another…had 25 percent, and the last one had 35 percent lemon juice,” Sally Greenberg, Executive Director for the NCL said. “And they were all labeled 100 percent lemon juice.”

She noted that there are ways to tell if what you are reading on a label is truly what´s inside the package or not. When it comes to olive oil, check to see if it has a harvest date, and try to avoid products in dark bottles. Usually if the price seems too good to be true, then most likely it is.

“$5.50, that’s pretty cheap for extra virgin olive oil,” Greenberg said. “And something that should raise some eyebrows for consumers.”

But not getting what you are paying for is not the only concern.

“There’s absolutely a public health risk,” said John Spink, associate director for the Anti-Counterfeit and Product Protection Program (A-CAPPP) at Michigan State University. “And the key is the people that are unauthorized to handle this product, they are probably not following good manufacturing practices and so there could be contaminates in it.”

Consumers should use caution and might find more solace in buying product from “suppliers, retailers, brands, that have a vested interest in keeping us as repeat customers.”

The FDA, along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), takes food fraud “very seriously.”

The FDA recently issued an alert for pomegranate juice that was mislabeled as 100 percent pure juice, and honey that was fraudulently misrepresented as pure.

“Ensuring the safety and integrity of our products — and maintaining the confidence of consumers — is the single most important goal of our industry,” the GMA told ABC News in a statement. They added that their members have “robust quality management programs and procedures in place, including analytical testing, to help ensure that only the safest and highest quality products are being offered to consumers.”