‘Food fraud’ comes in two varieties, illicit and officially permitted

Posted by
May 3, 2012

FoodIdentityTheft.com — May3, 2012   Let’s talk a little about “food fraud.” It’s a form of deception that comes in two varieties –  illicit and the kind actually permitted by the regulators charged with protecting our health and well-being.

Before the spring of 2007, not many people were familiar with the chemical melamine. But that year consumers learned a heart-wrenching lesson in food fraud as the news unfolded that melamine-tainted wheat gluten imported from China had resulted in the deaths of thousands of pets. The poisoned ingredient went from China to a pet food manufacturing company in Canada, which in turn produced pet food bearing the label of some big name companies in the U.S.

In a recent report commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security, food fraud is defined as being “the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging, or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.”  And if you want to see just how prevalent food fraud is, check out the new online tool launched by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).

The USP, a non-profit organization that establishes standards for foods, supplements and drugs, recently launched its Food Fraud Database, said to be the first public compilation of its kind. Already the database has identified the top eight foods listed as “most vulnerable” ingredients for adulteration, among them olive oil, spices, milk and honey.

The ever-increasing amount of imported food also opens the door for increased risk. A recent FDA-sponsored report found that foods imported into the U.S. have tripled over the last decade, with seafood, fruits, nuts and vegetables leading the pack.

The database,  according to the USP,  will make things safer for consumers by “evaluating current and emerging risks for food fraud,” as well as improving testing methods.  “This…is a critical step in protecting consumers,” said Dr. John Spink, associate director of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection program at Michigan State University, one of the researchers involved in analyzing the new database.

If there’s one thing that the consumers should keep in mind to avoid deliberately adulterated products, it’s be careful of the brands you buy. Clare Narrod, a risk analysis program manager for the University of Maryland’s Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, is quoted as advising, “Avoiding fakes comes down largely to being an informed shopper and buying from trustworthy sources. Branded products tend to have more supply-chain safeguards” against such substitution and misrepresentation, she says.

And of course, the fewer processed food items you buy and the more you make dishes from “scratch” the less chance you have of being a food-fraud victim.

‘Loophole labeling’: the other kind of food fraud

Selling high fructose corn syrup as honey or passing off soybean oil as extra virgin olive oil  are certainly blatant examples of food fraud. But there’s another kind of product misrepresentation, one permitted by regulators and perpetrated in supermarkets all over the country.  We at Food Identity Theft refer to it as “loophole labeling,” meaning taking advantage of loose labeling laws that allow manufacturers to get away with things that should be illegal.

Exhibit A: the zero trans fat label. Cookies, peanut butter, cereal, breads, and numerous other items, that all actually contain trans fats, which can lead to coronary artery disease, are able to declare zero amounts on the nutrition facts panel,  We know, for instance,that there’s no way a product containing “fully hydrogenated oil,” as do the standard jars of Jif and Skippy peanut butter (including the Jif low-fat variety), can be trans-fat free.  But if those “choosey” moms who choose Jif are just looking at those so-called “nutrition facts” without bothering to read the actual ingredients, they (and their kids) can easily become victims of loophole labeling fraud.

According to the current rules stipulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as long as the amount of trans-fats in a product is under 0.5 grams per serving, it can declare a big zero for the artery-clogging ingredient on the label. And those “zeros” can add up. Eating three servings of different foods that contain amounts small enough to fit  ‘through the loophole’, for example, can easily amount to well over a gram of trans fat, even though you might think you’ve eaten none.

The answer? Check the actual ingredient label. If it lists any kind of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil, the product contains trans-fats, regardless of what the nutrition label says.

Exhibit B: Products that contain “no MSG.”  If a food contains the ingredient monosodium glutamate, that must be declared on the label. There are, however, numerous other ingredients that contain similarly “free” glutamate, including yeast extract; anything “hydrolyzed;” autolyzed yeast; soy protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. All of these MSG-sibling ingredients are added for one reason only: to make the product taste better.

Avoiding such “hidden MSG” takes both label reading and knowing what you’re looking for. (For some science-based facts about MSG, as well as a list of hidden MSG sources, check out the Truth in Labeling site).

In a way, it would be almost better to have no regulation at all than the kind that permits ‘loophole labeling’- at least then, we’d know it was up to us to find out what our food really contained, rather than relying on labels that are deliberately designed to deceive us. And since food fraud can affect not just our wallet, but our health and well being, becoming an ingredient-savvy shopper has become more crucial than ever.