By: Gisselle Marie Rosa, UGA MS student & Dietetic Intern
As consumers, we put our trust in food companies to be honest about their food products. You go to the grocery store and spend and exorbitant amount on 100% pure Italian olive oil expecting that it comes from the finest olive crops in Italy. Yet that dark glass bottle with the scenic picture of an olive farm in Tuscany may contain olive oil mixed with lower quality vegetable oil. Then you see news reports bombarding the media about honey that is diluted with less expensive syrups and “wild” salmon that was actually farm-raised in another continent. It makes you wonder why food companies would risk lying to their consumers about the quality of the food they are selling and how you can avoid buying these products at all.
Food fraud, or economically motivated adulteration, refers to defrauding buyers of food or ingredients for economic gain. There are generally three types of fraud: complete or partial replacement of a food or ingredient, the addition of a substance to mask the quality of the food product, and removal of a component of the food product. Unfortunately, no one really knows exactly how common these practices are. Most instances of food fraud do not pose a public health risk, so they are easy to get away with. There are some instances, however, where certain foods or ingredients are adulterated with potential allergens or toxic ingredients that could harm the consumer. Some examples are as benign as injecting shrimp with gelatin, while others are as dangerous as adding melamine to infant formula to make the protein content of the formula seem higher. The latter example led to thousands of infant illnesses and the death of 6 infants in China.
However, not all cases of food adulteration are intentional. An example is selling bruised fruit, where mishandling could have led to decreased quality of the produce item and potential exposure to contamination.
It is pretty evident that food fraud can be deceiving and even dangerous. So how can you become a more informed consumer?
The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) has an online database available to the public that provides food ingredient fraud reports. In this database, you can find past reports from the media and scientific journals about food fraud incidents. Additionally, the United States Department of Agriculture has a website that posts the most recent food recalls, many of which are due to food adulteration.
According to the Congressional Research Service, some of the most common food categories with reported cases of food fraud include: olive oil, fish and seafood, milk and milk-based products, honey, fruit juice, coffee and tea, spices, and organic foods. Curious to see how these foods have been adulterated in the past? Check out the http://www.usp.org/food-ingredients/food-fraud-database to see for yourself.
Just remember: a smart consumer is a safe consumer. While there is no need to be skeptical about every food product you buy, it is important to understand that food fraud exists. So the next time you go to the store to buy fresh red snapper, make sure that the fish you are buying is authentic and not a cheaper, lower quality fish.
Johnson, R. Food Fraud and “Economically Motivated Adulteration” of Food and Food Ingredients. Congressional Research Service 2014. Internet: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43358.pdf
U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. USP’s Food Fraud Database 2015. Internet: http://www.usp.org/food-ingredients/food-fraud-database
United States Department of Agriculture. Recalls and Public Health Alerts, 2014. Internet: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/