Thanks to the rapidly-expanding scope of the horse meat scandal in Europe, many of us have food fraud on the brain and are starting to pick suspiciously at the contents of our plates; what did you really have for dinner last night? Sadly, food fraud is nothing new, and it’s dangerous for people with allergies as well as offensive on principle for consumers who want to know what they’re eating.
Get ready for these ten common examples of food fraud, pulled from the extensive database at the United States Pharmacopeial Convention, illustrating a need for tightened regulations and better enforcement when it comes to food processing, packaging and labeling.
1. White Tuna
What the heck is white tuna? Well, you might not have to worry, because that’s probably not what’s in your sushi anyway. Many markets are using escolar, a cheaper fish that, by the way, can cause food poisoning thanks to the waxy esters it contains (it’s also known as ex-lax fish if you want an idea of the symptoms you’ll experience). Escolar is such a concern that some nations have banned it from the market.
2. Pomegranate, Apple, Orange Juices and More
Fruit juice is a big hit these days thanks to the antioxidant punch it packs, and it’s also pretty expensive. So if you see some pomegranate juice with a price tag that seems too good to be true, it probably is; apple juice and other less costly fillers may have been used to bring production costs down. Other juices like apple and orange may include pesticides, sugars and other added ingredients that most definitely don’t appear on the label. Juices may also contain ‘clouding agents’ to make them look fresh, and some of these could make you sick.
3. Olive Oil
Olive oil’s a biggie in a world where many people are trying to eat a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. In addition to being cut with less expensive oils that can alter its nutritional profile, flavor and performance in the kitchen, olive oils can also be mislabeled in terms of processing and origin. That ‘extra-virgin Italian olive oil,’ in other words, may be a secondary pressing from somewhere else entirely.
4. Honey and Maple Syrup
Ah, natural sweeteners. Think again! Honey and maple syrup may be processed with corn syrup and other sugars to increase their sweetness, and to dilute them; both products are expensive to produce and process, and a low-cost filler can make them stretch further.
Even milk?! Yes. Cow milk may be cut with sheep, goat, and other species, along with various filler materials, some of which aren’t so great for human consumption — like melamine in infant formula. If you’re avoiding cow milk for ethical or allergy reasons, be aware that contaminants have also been found in goat and other species.
Saffron, an extremely expensive spice, is a common culprit, but it’s not alone. Many packaged spices contain adulterants, especially if they’re sold in powdered form, because the original spice is so costly. Borate, glycerin, barium sulfate, and a variety of other unpleasant visitors have been found in spice jars.
7. Coffee and Tea
Before you brew a cup, you might want to think about what you’re drinking, because ground and instant coffee along with teas may contain twigs, paper, malt, chicory, starch and various grains. Wondering why you get an upset tummy after drinking coffee? If you’re gluten intolerant, you may have just unwittingly downed a cup of gluten.
Mislabeling of fish is a recurrent issue; a 2012 study by Oceana discovered that almost 40% of fish sold in New York City was mislabeled. It may be advertised as wild caught when it’s farmed, or as a totally different species. And when fish is sold in fillet or frozen form, it’s hard to tell what it is and where it came from without genetic testing.
If you love deep-fried squid as much as I do, this is a real blow. In This American Life, Ira Glass recently explored the fact that pig anus (“bung” in industry terms) can be seamlessly interchanged for the real deal on a seafood platter. He was reacting to a tip that a meat plant was doing just that with its products and it makes you wonder what other pig parts might be passed off as something else.
Love rice, lentils and baking with a variety of grains? You’ll shudder at the adulterants that have been discovered in them, including herbicides and pesticides along with other toxins like melamine. Many are also mislabeled, with incorrect information about their region of origin reflected on the label. Yum!
What can you do about food fraud as a consumer? Well, one piece of advice is to buy whole and close to the source. It’s harder to pass adulterated food when you’re looking at the fresh product; for example, pepper is frequently cut with fillers like millet when it’s ground, but you know what whole black peppercorns look like, so you can inspect the pepper you see for sale to see if it’s authentic. Buying from local farms, fisheries and butchers can also increase the chances of getting what you actually pay for.
Don’t be seduced by cheap prices, either. If something is radically on sale or is consistently priced lower than competing products, that might be a sign that it’s not what you think it is. If you have questions, contact the company and demand information. Want to know if those “free-range” eggs are really produced in humane conditions? Contact the company and the certifying agency, and think about asking for a farm visit so you can see for yourself.
Furthermore, lend your opposition to “ag gag” laws, which penalize whistleblowers who expose issues like food fraud and animal abuse. Tell your legislators you support protections for whistleblowers and want to see these laws repealed.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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