New Program Seeks Out Food Fraud

A fashion fake is easy to spot: the label says BURBERRY, but the pattern is slightly off-color, the price is too good to be true, and the vendor is operating out of a corner market on Manhattan's infamous Canal Street. But fake food? Not that easy, partly because most of us don't even think to look for it. We assume that if the label says EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL or WILD SALMON, that's what's we're getting. According to a whole host of experts, we shouldn't be so sure.

When the FBI dubbed counterfeiting "the crime of the century" they weren't just talking about Prada handbags and Rolex watches. The counterfeit food industry is worth about $49 billion a year, according to the World Customs Institute, and it involves everything from fine food to boxed fruit juice. "Products are moving around the world so fast now that there is just ample opportunity," says John Spink, a food-fraud expert at Michigan State University. "And the demand for inexpensive food virtually guarantees that the problem will persist and grow."

With that reality in mind, MSU has launched the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program (ACAPPP). The first program of its kind, ACAPPP will employ a range of experts, from food safety and criminal justice to international business and engineering, to develop an international hub for anti-counterfeiting strategies.

Food fraud, which typically means the intentional adulteration of food with cheaper ingredients for economic gain, has a long, fascinating history in both the U.S. and Europe, as documented in the excellent book Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. But because such fraud occupies an awkward gap between food safety (which deals with accidental food contamination) and food defense or bioterrorism (which deals with intentional corruption of the food supply by terrorist groups), it hasn't received much attention. Until recently.

In 2008, Chinese officials reported that milk adulterated with melamine—a chemical that makes the milk appear to have a higher protein content—caused 900 infants to be hospitalized for kidney problems. When six of those babies died, a media firestorm shone a spotlight on food fraud in China and touched off a wave of panic in the United States.

Over the years, smaller scandals have supplied a steady stream of headlines. In 2007, the University of North Carolina found that 77 percent of fish labeled as red snapper—a flavorful white fish most commonly harvested in the Gulf of Mexico—was actually tilapia, a much more ubiquitous and less flavorful species. Elsewhere, inspectors have found catfish being sold as grouper (the latter costs nearly twice as much as the former), French cognac adulterated with U.S.-made brandy, and honey mixed with cheaper sugars like high-fructose corn syrup. And in 2008, food safety officers seized more than 10,000 cases of counterfeit extra virgin olive oil, worth more than $700,000, from warehouses in New York and New Jersey.

Some states have confronted the problem by establishing their own rules. In 2008, Connecticut became the first state in the country to establish olive oil standards; California, Oregon, and New York soon followed. Federal officials have been slightly less proactive. For its part, the FDA relies heavily on legitimate trade associations to police their own borders; it takes action almost exclusively on complaints that are called in. Part of the problem is the sheer magnitude of the potential crime scene. There are more than 300 ports of entry in the United States, through which 13 percent of America's food supply passes. The FDA only has the resources to inspect about 2 percent of that food (which isn't surprising given its dismal budget and what some say are toothless mandates). "In terms of priorities, [food fraud] often ranks at the bottom of the list," says FDA food-safety officer Martin Stutsman.

But Spink says that monitoring everything isn't necessary. "What we need to do is focus on the chemistry of the crime," he says. "That means understanding the fraudsters themselves—who they are, what their motivations are, and how they find their opportunities." And according to Spink, we've got a long way to go: "Based on our understanding of food fraud, the FDA is doing a fine job of dealing with it. But the problem is, we really don't understand it all that well."

Here's what authorities do know: food fraudsters include a range of types, from individuals and small teams all the way up to organized-crime syndicates and major corporations. Most of them are involved in other criminal activities, as well, so it might be easier to nab them for tax evasion or some lesser crime. In the coming months, and in concert with the FBI, ACAPPP plans to focus heavily on intelligence-gathering strategies, something the FDA lacks the resources for.

In the FDA's defense, most experts agree that—melamine scandal notwithstanding—food fraud does not pose significant health risks. "The intent is to defraud people, not to make them sick," says 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." Still, 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.

If consumers suspect food fraud, they should report it to the FDA immediately by calling the hotline 888-SAFEFOOD or visiting the organization’s Web site. But until enforcement and detection improves, the best way for consumers to protect themselves, says Stutsman, is to stay informed. Know your fish: what it should look and taste like, when it is in season, and how much it should cost (as well as whether or not it even exists—Wild Atlantic Salmon, for example, is endangered and not commercially available). As with fashion fakes, deals that look too good to be true probably are. If it says "extra virgin" but it's going for $3 a gallon, it might be soybean oil dyed green with chlorophyll—cheaper, but not nearly as healthy.

Join the Discussion