your favorite foods may be fakes.
Foods masquerading as something else — a more
nutritious something else — have been big news in the past two years.
Chinese food companies in particular have been blamed for making deadly
alterations to dairy, baby and pet foods by adding melamine. The chemical
makes it appear that the food or beverage has the required level of
But what about food producers in this country? What
fraudulent foods do U.S.
consumers have to fear from American companies?
Experts say dangerous U.S.-produced foods are
comparatively few, but producers have been known to practice "economic
adulteration" — adding a little to their bottom line by padding,
thinning or substituting something cheap for something expensive.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and
Drug Administration regulate the food industry, but with safety issues to
deal with, economic adulteration has "really been back-burnered," says Bruce Silverglade
of the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest. So in a caveat
emptor world, what should consumers look out for?
Fish is the most frequently faked food Americans buy.
In the business, it's called "species adulteration" — selling a
cheaper fish such as pen-raised Atlantic salmon as wild Alaska salmon.
When Consumer Reports tested 23 supposedly wild-caught
salmon fillets bought nationwide in 2005-2006, only 10 were wild salmon.
The rest were farmed. In 2004, University
of North Carolina
scientists found 77% of fish labeled red snapper was actually something
else. Last year, the Chicago
Sun-Times tested fish at 17 sushi restaurants and found that fish being
sold as red snapper actually was mostly tilapia.
"It's really just fraud, plain and simple,"
says Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, an industry group.
One thing consumers don't need to worry about is
scallops. Tales of skate wings cut into circles and sold as scallops are
common. But Randolph
says the FDA has never found an actual case of it.
Salmon is tricky. Randolph
does have one tip, though. Farmed salmon gets its coloring from dyes added
to food pellets the fish are fed, while wild salmon gets it from the
plankton they eat.
"When you cook it, the wild salmon retains its
color, and in the aquaculture salmon, the color tends to leak out,"
she says. Suspicious consumers can call the FDA's Center for Food Safety
and Nutrition hotline at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.
This luxury oil, touted for its heart-health properties
and taste, has become a gourmet must-have. Americans consumed about 575
million pounds of the silky stuff last year, according to the North
American Olive Oil Association. Sixty-three percent was the higher-grade
extra virgin, which comes from the first pressing of the olives.
It's also one of the most frequently counterfeited food
products, says Martin Stutsman, the FDA's consumer safety officer for
There are no national figures on olive-oil fakery. But
after complaints, Connecticut
began testing two years ago. "We were coming across a lot of products
labeled as extra-virgin olive oil that contained up to 90% soybean
oil," says Jerry Farrell Jr., Connecticut's
commissioner of consumer protection.
Most name brands were fine, Farrell says. It was often
off-brands sold in discount stores that were the problem.
Connecticut was so concerned that
in November, it became the first state in the nation to set standards for
olive oil, enabling officials there to levy fines and pull adulterated
products off store shelves. California
is set to create its own standards this year. Reports from panels of
testers have found as much as 60% to 70% of the olive oil sold as extra
virgin in the state is a lower-quality olive oil, says Dan Flynn of the
Olive Center at the University of California-Davis.
The easiest thing is for fakers to add 10% vegetable
oil in extra virgin, says Stutsman. "It will still smell as it should,
but you've saved 10% of the cost."
Bob Bauer, president of the North American Olive Oil
Association, says it's more of a problem in restaurants than in
An expensive natural product that's mostly sugar, honey
is easily faked. "If you can substitute a less expensive source of
sugar for the expensive one, you can save some money and gain market
share," says the FDA's Stutsman.
It used to be that cane sugar or high-fructose corn
syrup was mostly used to thin out honey. But chemically, that was easy to
spot. FDA used an isotope test that would easily identify the adulteration.
So counterfeiters got wily and started using beet
sugar. Its profile is similar to honey, so the FDA had to switch to a much
more complicated, multistep test comparing the sugar profiles to see if the
proportions and trace materials match.
"But once we started catching people, they create
a moving target. They'll switch to something more difficult (to
detect)," says Stutsman.
Maple syrup is another high-value item that can be
adulterated. In these tough economic times, Vermont,
largest supplier to flapjacks everywhere, may up its testing programs.
The boiled-down sap of the sugar maple tree can be
diluted with water or sugar by sellers "trying to get more bang for
the buck," says Kristin Haas, food safety director in the state's
Agency for Agriculture, Food and Markets.
Vermont's testing program has
found fraud only three times in the past 17 years, says Haas, but it's not
taken lightly. "A couple of years back, there was a gentleman who
actually went to prison because of this issue."
When times get tight, the incentive to cheat can rise
like sap in the spring, so the state may have to work harder to keep its
premier product pure.
A product of the tropics, vanilla pods can be soaked in
milk or stored in sugar to impart a delicate vanilla scent to foods. More commonly,
they're soaked in alcohol that is then used as a flavoring.
But vanillin (pronounced VAN-ah-lynn),
a chemical copy of the richly organic vanilla flavor, was created in the
laboratory in the 19th century. When used in foods, it's supposed to be labeled
as an artificial flavor and usually is.
One "too good to be true" product to watch
out for is really inexpensive vanilla extract sometimes sold in Mexico and Latin
America, says the FDA. It's often made with coumarin, a toxic substance that has been banned in U.S. foods
Coumarin is chemically related
to warfarin, a blood thinner, and can be
dangerous. It's "no bargain," the FDA says.