Fish-counter_406x250Pick up any item in the supermarket and read through the ingredient labeling. Nearly all of the ingredients listed have the potential to be vulnerable to food fraud, according to food fraud investigator Mitchell Weinberg. “Around the world, food fraud is an epidemic. In every single country where food is produced or grown, food fraud is occurring,” Weinberg said to a roomful of food safety professionals at last month’s annual meeting of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) in Portland, OR. Weinberg, a former attorney, is founder, president and CEO of INSCATECH, a food fraud detection agency that plants “undercover operatives” in foreign food facilities that supply food and ingredients to the U.S. food industry. Joining him on a panel presentation discussing food fraud was George Hughes, senior adviser for the Office of Criminal Investigations at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Andrew Clarke, director of certification and audit for Maple Leaf Foods. According to the presenters, food fraud is much more prevalent than most American consumers understand. It affects everything from seafood to milk, spices and even food coloring — anything with “even a moderate economic value,” as Weinberg put it. Food fraud is, of course, not a new phenomenon, as Clarke pointed out in his presentation. Since the 13th century, Britain has had laws against diluting wine with water, adding ash to pepper, or padding flour with chalk. But food fraud trends appear to be worsening these days. Recent years have seen a rise in the number of fraud cases involving deadly adulterants, as well as an increase in fraudulent labeling and legal prosecution for food fraud. More high-profile food fraud cases than the speakers had time to address have occurred just in the past year. In June, more than 100,000 tons of smuggled, frozen, expired meat — some of it decades old — was seized in China from groups selling it for consumption. In September, global walnut crop failures lead to an increase in fraudulent peanut substitution. South Africa experienced an enormous recall of supermarket products in October after they were found to be colored with banned dyes. A fraud case can be as simple as a steak producer selling a cut as certified Angus when it truly isn’t, Clarke said. The most visceral audience reaction came from another case out of China: undercover video of fake rice being produced in China out of plastic resin and sweet potato. “Three cups of this rice is equivalent to eating a plastic shopping bag,” Weinberg said. FDA has approximately 200 agents worldwide in its criminal investigations office, most of who came from the Secret Service or the FBI. They investigate cases of food fraud, product tampering, and the manufacture of counterfeit or unapproved drugs, according to Hughes. Often, Hughes said, food fraud can indicate that a company’s executives are committing other illegal or dubious acts. In the case of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and its fraudulent sale of contaminated peanuts, for example, the company was also found to be selling cheap peanuts substituted in with a pricier variety, he said. In big fraud cases, FDA prosecutors may charge companies with everything from conspiracy (if more than one person worked together to deceive) to mail fraud (if fraudulent items were shipped). “Our objective is to hit these guys so hard with as many violations as possible that [the industry will be compelled to] do the right thing,” Hughes said. The recent criminal case involving PCA and its former CEO, Stewart Parnell, will likely see the biggest penalty in FDA’s criminal prosecution history, Hughes added. Worldwide, INTERPOL tracks food fraud activities in 47 countries, according to Clarke. Those included counterfeit alcohol, bottled water from unclean sources, and fish treated with hydrogen peroxide to fake freshness. Despite the dire statistics, the panelists discussed efforts to curb food fraud, including increased prosecution and the need for food companies to enhance their interaction with suppliers. In many cases, U.S. companies should be physically inspecting their food suppliers or finding some other method to monitor their activities to make sure that no fraud is taking place, Weinberg said. No other efforts can deter misbehavior like the threat of losing business, he added.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

  • Grace Marie Longinetti

    Very informative and very frighting, to think our food supply chain is being tampered with.

  • Kitsy WooWoo

    A friend and I ate in a well-known local restaurant last week. Ahead of time I called and asked which of the (many) fish and seafood items on the menu were farm raised and which were wild. Guy on the phone said he’d check and to hold on a moment. When he returned, he said “They were all wild.” Yeah, sure they were. (He too sounded like he found this hard to believe.)

    A few years ago I had asked another restaurant if their salmon (the cost of the whole meal was around $10) was farm raised or wild, and I was assured that it was indeed wild. So I’ve learned not to bother asking anyone at a restaurant about their fish….I doubt if I’d get a truthful answer.

  • Cheryl Bowe

    “Three cups of this rice is equivalent to eating a plastic shopping bag,” Weinberg said.
    …..Are you offended? ……..
    Did you know that currently the United States sends our horses to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered and processed into meat for human consumption?….The horses are not raised or regulated as food animals,….they are previous race horses, sport horses and pet horses, treated with many drugs not allowed in animals intended for human consumption.
    ……Our FDA refuses to do anything about it, because the meat is not eaten in the U.S., allowing the meat to be distributed in foreign countries on a buyer beware basis……In this respect, we are no better than the Chinese.

    • Bryan DiMenna

      Lol really? Given horse meat is eaten around the world you equate us sending horse meat to foreign countries the same as China sending us plastic rice? I needed a good laugh today thanks

    • Kristin Morgan

      I’m not offended. Horses do make good meat, that’s a fact. I am angry when consumers are swindled, especially by companies that import foodstuffs to Americans and make huge profits while paying ZERO taxes to the nation they are abusing. The Chinese do not have “pride of workmanship” that is inherent in American production, it is not a racial observation but a cultural one. We should not be doing business with China, period. We should not be doing business with *any* “Soviet* (read Communist) nations in any way.

  • Barb3000

    Another thing the consumer can do is look on frozen bags of seafood at the market to make sure where it came from, I know Fred Meyer sells frozen fish shipped in from China in all its stores.

    • CelticBrewer

      “Country of Origin Labeling requires that certain products, including beef and pork, are tagged with a label that says where the animal that produced the meat was born, raised, and slaughtered. The House has already passed COOL-repeal legislation by a margin of 300-131 and its adoption by the Senate would move repeal forward.”

  • SuperChicken

    No new surprises here. China has been 100% behind the counterfeiting and importation of fraudulent consumer, commercial and industrial goods for almost two Decades. Everything from fake medicine, automobile parts, industrial fasteners, clothing apparel and footwear, handbags, wristwatches, pirated DVD and computer software, tainted pet food, and now Foodstuff(s) intended for people sold at places like Dollar Stores, Aldi, Kroeger and other similar discount markets. I was shocked to discover that almost all frozen seafood, some vegetable and meat products sold at our Aldi Market were ALL outsourced from China. It was printed cryptically on the bottom of the bulk cardboard shipping cases they come in, and not on the individual packs which sit inside within the freezer and refrigerated cases. Aldi Markets is now off the list of places where I will shop for food.