Michigan State University recently launched a comprehensive, multidisciplinary program to address an all too common and often ignored food policy issue: food fraud.

According to the university, “the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program (A-CAPPP) is the first and preeminent academic body focusing upon the complex global issues of anti-counterfeiting and product protection of all products, across all industries, in all markets and strategies to work effectively to detect, deter, and respond to the crime.”

olive-oil2-featured.jpg“In terms of priorities, [food fraud] often ranks at the bottom of the list,” U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food safety officer Martin Stutsman told Newsweek last month. It is no wonder the FDA does not focus on food fraud. With an increasingly complex food system and woefully inadequate capacity to monitor it all, the agency has bigger, more dangerous priorities to address, like keeping deadly pathogens off of produce that will be consumed raw.

Yet, with China’s ongoing problems with melamine-tainted dairy products, and the launch of A-CAPPP, economic adulteration in the food supply is garnering more attention.

Food fraud may seem like a problem from the days of Upton Sinclair or one that belongs mainly overseas, but fake or mislabled food is being sold right here in the U.S. Much of domestic food fraud happens in the seafood arena. Think you ordered red snapper? Nope, it’s often tilapia. Grouper? It might actually be catfish. A Consumer Reports study in 2006 found that less than half of salmon fillets labeled as wild-caught were actually wild salmon.

There is also ample opportunity for fraud in imported food. The FDA inspects somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 percent of food imports, which enter the U.S. at over 300 points of entry.

Olive oil is a top target for counterfeiting–exporters can dilute the pricey stuff with cheaper vegetable oil. In 2008, the FDA seized over 10,000 cases of counterfeit olive oil. Experts in California estimate as much as 60 to 70 percent of extra virgin olive oil in the state is in fact lower quality than is indicated on the label.

Honey, vanilla, maple syrup, cognac, and champagne are also known targets for economic adulteration, but it is hard to know exactly how often the fraud occurs. Most studies that have looked at food fraud have been relatively small and anecdotal.

Though the scope of the problem is not fully understood, as Newsweek pointed out last month, most experts agree that “food fraud does not pose significant health risks.”

“The intent is to defraud people, not to make them sick,” said Stutsman. “And the good ones will make their stuff as close as possible to the legitimate product because they don’t want to get caught.”

But as reporter Jeneed Interlandi points out, there are certainly potential risks that come with mislabeled food. “It’s not difficult to imagine potential unintended consequences: olive oil adulterated with peanut oil being unwittingly served to someone with a peanut allergy, or someone eating a mislabeled fish that they’re allergic to.”

The FDA encourages the public to report potential food fraud. To report a product: 1-888-SAFEFOOD or visit www.fda.gov.

  • The “problem” is far worse than the so called experts in California relate or realize. The largest single player in Southern California in the “Bulk olive oil” business is a well known counterfeiter of the first magnitude. He may be the largest counterfeiter in the entire US. Estimates by one insider place the profits from his counterfeiting operation at 20,000,00.00 a year. The mislabeled river of adulterated oil that flows from this company washes across state lines and can be found in some of the largest retailers and food service companies in the Western US both as an ingredient in manufactured products, and as stand alone oil. The problem is not simply a US problem and ranges from this kind of blatant fraud to what many notable large and respected companies engage in on a regular basis, and viewed by many industry insiders as a “venial sin”. The practice of mixing off grade olive oil or refined olive oil with just enough generic extra virgin to pass the self serving “test” is epidemic. The excuse for a “standard” that the world governing body; the powerful and vulnerable IOOC requires is a bad joke. As one prominent outspoken German chemist, Christian Gertz, puts it, “The IOOC standards are a road map and recipe for fraud”. The laboratory testing methods and procedures as outlined by the IOOC do not detect the presence of refined olive oil if it is refined using the most modern techniques of high vacuum processing. The machinery required to refine lampante olive oil and not leave the chemical evidence is sold openly at all of the olive oil machinery trade shows. This machinery is the olive oil equivalent of a “hash pipe”. It has only one purpose, and that is to game the system. There are so many ongoing scams and variations on this theme that is impossible to keep track of them all. One fact is certain: Everyone, and I mean everyone with a clue in the olive oil business knows that the system is corrupt and cannot be reformed from the inside out. Most of the largest and most powerful players are counting on it.

  • John Spink

    A key is that while economically MOTIVATED adulteration is economically MOTIVATED… there are real public health food risks. Also, those risks are unconventional… so potentially a Black Swan event waiting to happen (very unlikely but there is potential for a catastrophic severity). The risk is unconventional beacause the fraudsters are trying to avoid detection. Our best practices and effeciencies in food safety lead to looking at a range of common, known bad bugs (CFSAN/FDA Bad Bug Book) and chemicals. To avoid detection, the fraudsters would use different chemicals… such as melamine.

  • An article some may find of interest regarding honey adulteration.
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