Most consumers know to ignore emails alerting them to foreign lottery winnings and to steer clear of "designer" bags sold on street corners. But experts say even scam-savvy shoppers may be falling prey to fraud at a surprising place: the grocery store.
Food fraud -- the adulteration, dilution or mislabeling of goods stocked on the shelf -- is part of a growing trend of faux household goods . Although there is little data on the frequency of food fakery, experts say there's growing awareness of the problem. The lack of information on the subject recently prompted the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention -- a nonprofit that sets standards used by the FDA -- to establish a Food Fraud Database. And a new study in the Journal of Food Science analyzed the top offenders identified by the database, including olive oil, milk and honey. "We're seeing similar trends in food to other items -- if it can be faked, it probably is," says Tara Steketee, the senior manager for brand protection at OpSec Security, an anti-counterfeiting consulting firm. "There are actually counterfeit tomatoes, believe it or not." (In that example, she says, garden-variety tomatoes get marketed as the more expensive heirloom ones.)
The growing number of imported foods consumed by Americans makes it harder to identify the frauds, experts say. A recent FDA-commissioned Institute of Medicine study found the quantity of imported foods and drugs nearly tripled over the past 10 years. Currently, imports account for 85% of seafood, 39% of fruits and nuts and 18% of vegetables. That leads to great variety, but also increased risk from less rigorous food safety practices in other countries, says Clare Narrod, the risk analysis program manager for the University of Maryland's Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, who served on the committee preparing the Institute of Medicine study. Criminals may also re-route a problem product through other countries in an attempt to evade U.S. bans.
Food is also one of the easier products to fake because the distinctions from the real deal are often subtle. "The biggest challenge with food products is that they're natural, and there's an infinite number of variation in natural products," says John Spink, associate director of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program at Michigan State University, who authored the new Journal of Food Science study. Criminals are counting on shoppers not tasting differences between wines, and not noticing that their supposedly wild salmon isn't quite as pink as it should be when cooked. As more cooks experiment with high-end olive oils, artisanal meats and heirloom produce, passing off a cheap ingredient as its fancier counterpart grows more profitable, too.
Avoiding fakes comes down largely to being an informed shopper and buying from trustworthy sources. Branded products tend to have more supply-chain safeguards, says Narrod. "It's their reputation on the line, so they have things in place," she says. It can also help to buy products with shorter supply chains which tend to be local or minimally processed, Spink says. And if the taste of an item seems off, or you get sick, it's worth alerting both the store and the local public health department.
Because they're ingested, fraudulent foods carry more significant health concerns than other fakes. Consumers with allergies could have a reaction, says Amy Kircher, associate director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense. Some substituted items aren't meant for human consumption, and others contain toxic ingredients like lead or melamine.
Here are eight foods researchers say shoppers may unwittingly buy fraudulent versions of.
Accounting for 16% of the database's recorded cases, olive oil is the food most subject to fraud, according to the Journal of Food Sciences study. In most cases, experts say, consumers are merely getting a bad deal -- regular olive oil instead of pricier extra virgin, say, or a less expensive variety from Greece instead of Italy as the label proclaims. But in rare cases, varieties of non-food-grade oil may be added in, posing a health risk, Steketee says. In one of the more famous cases, more than 600 people in Spain died in 1981 after consuming "olive oil" that was actually a non-food-grade rapeseed oil intended as an industrial lubricant. She suggests sticking to brands you know and sources you trust.
Adulterated milk is typically watered down and then laced with melamine, which increases the protein content to hide the dilution, Spink says. "Consumers may consume the product and may not be aware of the quality variation," he says. In fact, milk is the second most common ingredient subject to adulteration, at 14% of cases in the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention's Food Fraud Database. The 2008 Chinese milk scandal was the most high-profile incident, with the resulting outbreak killing six infants and sickening more than 300,000 consumers. Steketee says the problem is still more widespread abroad, with U.S. consumers needing to be more cautious about powdered milk and similar products of unknown origin.
The Journal of Food Sciences study pegged honey as a top fake, representing 7% of food fraud cases. Last year, Food Safety News tests also found that 75% of store honey doesn't contain pollen. People are still buying a bee-made product, but all the pollen has been screened out, says Andrew Schneider, a food safety journalist who wrote the reports for Food Safety News. A lack of pollen makes it tough to determine its geographic origin -- and also means regulators don't recognize the product as honey, he says. Why the misdirection? Separate Food Safety News tests found a third of the faux honey imports from Asia were contaminated with lead and antibiotics. For the real deal, Schneider suggests buying from a local beekeeper. A National Honey Board spokesman says the group disputes the Food Safety News findings, and says regulations do allow for pollen to be filtered out as part of the removal of particles such as bee parts and other organic debris.
Fraudsters find it easy to dilute expensive juices without a notable change in taste or consistency, says Kircher. Orange juice represents 4% of cases in the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention's Food Fraud Database, and apple juice, 2%. Consumers buying one of those common juices might get more water for their money, while an expensive one like pomegranate may be cut with apple juice. Consumers should be especially careful to read labels and pick a trusted brand when buying into the latest super-fruit craze, she says. It takes time to build up supply of a newly hot fruit, so those products are more likely to be adulterated.
Although not a top offender in the Food Fraud database, experts say baby formula poses considerable food fraud risk. Formula is one of the most common targets for organized retail theft http://blogs.smartmoney.com/paydirt/2011/06/09/how-criminals-are-ruining-your-shopping-experience/, and criminals often tamper with the sell-by codes to move expired product, Spink says. Adulterated milk, which can make it into formula, also poses a concern here, Steketee says. Parents' best bet, they say, is to buy from a major retailer rather than less-monitored venues such as flea markets and online auctions. And don't buy any package that has a blurred-out expiration date or otherwise looks tampered with, she says.
There's ample fraud opportunity in expensive goods that are purchased in small quantities and used in small doses as it's unlikely one's using enough to notice something isn't quite right, Spink says. Saffron represents 5% of food fraud cases and vanilla extract, 2%. Turmeric, star anise, paprika and chili powder each account for another 1%. Some are dangerous swaps, others, a waste of money. Shoppers buying paprika may be getting the flavorless leftovers of spices that have already been processed for extracts. Chinese star anise, for example, may be substituted with toxic Japanese star anise. Experts suggest being cautious about buying from markets or bulk bins without knowing the spice's origin.
Just a few weeks ago, a New York wine dealer was arrested for allegedly trying to sell rare -- but counterfeit -- wines for $1.3 million. Collectively, wines, spirits and liquors represent just 2% of cases in the USPC's Food Fraud database. Most faux wines are just a cheaper vintage and a bad bargain, but adulterated spirits are potentially more dangerous, says Steketee. Fake vodkas in particular have made the news in recent months, with contaminants such as anti-freeze and other dangerous chemicals. Counterfeiters are likely to focus most of their attention on the packaging, so consumers should keep an eye out for logos and bottles that don't look quite right, she says.
"It's easy to sell a piece of fish as one species when in reality it's another species," says Kircher. Farmed fish also get advertised as more expensive wild versions. Sometimes, it gets even more creative than a simple mislabel. Scallops, for example, might actually be punched out circles from a whitefish fillet, she says. Faux fish represented the top fraud in the Journal of Food Sciences study of media and other public records, at 9% of cases. And some may be unhealthy. A recent Consumer Reports study included a "grouper" sample that was really tilefish, a species that contains enough mercury to make the FDA's list of foods that pregnant women and young children should avoid. Experts suggest buying whole fish when possible which are harder to fake.
This updated version of the story contains a comment from the National Honey Board.