Food fraud on the rise

Food fraud has increased 60 per cent year over year, according to a new report. (Image: Flickr member Rowan Peter)

Food fraud has increased 60 per cent year over year, according to a new report. (Image: Flickr member Rowan Peter)

From olive oil, to coffee, from fish to spices, what’s on the label of your off-the-shelf groceries may not always be what you are actually getting.

The discovery of ‘fraud’ in a multinational corporation, where positive economic performance and healthy profits are all-consuming preoccupations, is not terribly surprising. However, when that fraud is linked with the food chain and what ultimately goes into our mouths, the news goes from surprising to alarming rather quickly, and the dangers increase dramatically.

The independent not-for-profit US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), which maintains a food fraud database, recently added nearly 800 new records of food fraud. Year over year, food fraud has increased 60 per cent, the organization reports.

To be clear, food fraud encompasses the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging. It can also entail false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain. In an age plagued by rising commodity costs, erratic growing conditions, and shrinking profits, the USP has started to see something a little more sinister: the intentional, or economically motivated, adulteration of food ingredients. In other words, adding non-authentic substances or removal/replacement of authentic substances without the purchaser’s knowledge expressly for economic gain.

“Food products are not always what they purport to be,” says Dr. Markus Lipp, USP Senior Director for Food Standards. Lipp told ABC News, “Ground black pepper can be adulterated with stems and starches, anything that looks greyish [and] speckled.” He also explained that the bright red colour of paprika, while visually appealing, can often be achieved with synthetic or industrial dyes. “Those dyes are typically carcinogenic, or at least presumed to be carcinogenic.”

But it doesn’t stop with spice fillers and colouring. USP says cutting olive oil with less-expensive vegetable oils is pervasive. Tea bag contents are often extended with fern leaves and grass clippings. And pomegranate juice, prized for its antioxidant powers, is routinely diluted with pear or grape juice. “Pomegranate juice is a high-value… high-priced ingredient,” Lipp says. “Adulteration appears to be widespread.”

In May 2012, the US-based National Consumers League tested four brands of lemon juice. “One had 10 percent lemon juice,” says Executive Director, Sally Greenburg. “Another had 15 per cent lemon juice, another…had 25 per cent, and the last one had 35 per cent lemon juice.” Here’s the catch: “they were all labeled 100 per cent lemon juice,” Greenburg says.

As food inflation and overall production costs rise, expect to see increased occurrences of fraud – whether implicit or explicit – including such things as substitutions, mislabeling, and de-contenting of products, all in the name of protecting corporate profits.

For proof, look no further than the quiet substitution of Robusta beans instead of more expensive Arabica beans in your favourite coffee, according to Reuters. If you’re drinking John Smith Extra Smooth bitters in the UK, don’t cry in your beer, it’s already de-alcoholized by .2 per cent as a cost saving measure for the company, says the Daily Telegraph.

And when is a ‘footlong’ sandwich not actually one foot (30.48 cm) long? When you order it at Subway, which has a footlong that is only 11 inches (27.94 cm). Subway also reduced cold-cut sizes by 25 percent, increased the cost of food to individual franchise owners by 4 to 5 percent every year, and provided them with less food, according to a franchisee who spoke with the Huffington Post.

One piece of advice from the National Consumers League is easy to follow and helps protect consumers: buy raw ingredients instead of processed ones. Put another way, squeeze your own lemons and grind your own peppercorns. But, if you want to bring it even closer to home, do the smart thing and eat seasonally, buy from your local farmer, and sign up for a CSA share – your family, your health, and your community deserve it.

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