The Shady Business of Food Fraud

When you shop for food, are you getting what you pay for? How would you know? Recent news stories of food fraud incidents — imported olive oil labeled "extra-virgin" that's actually a less-expensive grade of olive oil or a blend of other oils entirely, cheap varieties of fish passed off as pricier types and grated Parmesan cheese containing higher-than-allowed levels of cellulose — have some consumers wondering about the authenticity (and in some cases, the safety) of their food purchases.

While there is no legal definition of food fraud, it is definitely intended to deceive consumers and is financially motivated. Michigan State University's Food Fraud Initiative defines it as "a collective term used to encompass the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition (or dilution), tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product, for economic gain."

This definition is broad because food fraud takes so many different forms, says John Spink, PhD, director of FFI and assistant professor at Michigan State University. For instance, it can range from a product weight that's slightly off to a product adulteration that could sicken thousands of people.

The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention — which sets standards for identity, strength, quality and purity of food ingredients, dietary supplements and medicines — categorizes food fraud into three types in their Food Fraud Database: replacement, addition and removal.

The exact extent and economic impact of food fraud cannot be calculated because perpetrators operate covertly — and most cases are never exposed if they don't pose a public health risk. But a study commissioned by the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates certain types of food and consumer product fraud cost the global food industry $10 billion to $15 billion annually Tweet this from factors such as lost revenue, decreased market share, damage to reputation, increased costs for recalls, and liability and bankruptcy.

It's also tough to pinpoint perpetrators along the food supply chain. "They are brilliant criminals looking for opportunities to defraud," Spink says. "They usually are highly knowledgeable of the food supply, as well as food science and food chemistry."

And today's globalization of the food supply is fueling opportunities for fraudsters. "Products are moving farther and faster than ever before," Spink says. "Fish from another country can be caught, processed and arrive in the U.S. within 10 hours." Add to that a complex supply chain with numerous paperwork transfers and inconsistent oversight and it's easy to see why fraud is hard to detect and prevent.

Although food fraud is economically driven, harm to public health can be the result. One high-profile example occurred in 2008 in China when water-thinned milk used to make powered infant formula was adulterated with the chemical melamine to give the appearance of a normal protein content. Nearly 300,000 babies were sickened — and as many as six may have died — after consuming contaminated product. In the U.S. in 2009, two peanut processor executives were indicted on felony charges for "the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead" after selling salmonella-contaminated peanuts to unwitting food manufacturers. More than 700 people in 46 states were sickened and several deaths were linked to the products, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From a medical nutrition therapy standpoint, severe health consequences can occur when individuals  consume an unexpected ingredient to which they have a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity in a product thought to be "safe." And though perhaps not a health hazard, people also may unknowingly consume ingredients they avoid for religious or ethical reasons.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration have mechanisms to identify, enforce and prevent food fraud, they don't have the resources to physically inspect most products, much less detect every case. For instance, in 2011, the FDA physically inspected only 2.3 percent of all food and feed imports, which means the percentage of inspections for food alone is even smaller. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in 2000, FDA inspections covered only about 1 percent of the food imported under its jurisdiction.

But another front against food fraud is coming from the food industry itself — implementing more sophisticated and accurate methods to detect fraud, such as DNA testing and genome sequencing of fish, to help ensure authenticity. Spink says he expects implementation of industry standards that will require a documented vulnerability assessment and control plan based on guidelines from the industry-driven Global Food Safety Initiative.

Meanwhile, consumers also can take steps to reduce their risk of being deceived:

  • Be aware of foods that commonly fall victim to fraud. Learn more about vulnerable foods by tapping into the searchable USP Food Fraud database of reports of ingredient fraud: foodfraud.org.
  • Shop at trusted retailers and cultivate relationships with small, local businesses. This step isn't foolproof — even honest sellers can be fraud victims, too — but they may take extra care to source their products. For instance, local merchants sometimes have more direct oversight of their suppliers, such as a small grocer who picks up his organic produce from the farm down the road. They have more at stake, too. "There's usually low risk of fraud from a local shop because they have a high risk of going out of business from a fraud incident," Spink says.
  • Choose time-honored, reputable brands and products. Be wary of bargain prices for typically expensive foods such as saffron and extra-virgin olive oil — they might be diluted with cheap ingredients.
  • Buy foods as close to their natural form as possible. For instance, grind your own coffee beans and whole spices, and grow your own herbs.
  • If you suspect fraud, shout it out. Report it to the retailer and the manufacturer through their website or the consumer hotline number on the package. For FDA-regulated products (any food except meat and poultry), contact the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator in your state at fda.gov/Safety/ReportaProblem/ConsumerComplaintCoordinators/default.htm. For meat and poultry products, contact the USDA Office of Inspector General at usda.gov/oig/hotline.htm.
  • If you suspect a food product has made you sick, contact your public health department right away.
Diane Quagliani MBA, RDN, LDN
Diane Quagliani, MBA, RDN, LDN, is president of Quagliani Communications, Inc., a nutrition communications firm in Western Springs, Ill.