Walk down a midtown Manhattan street and you’ll see a folding table piled high with knockoff Prada handbags, Rolex watches, and Louis Vuitton wallets for a fraction of their retail prices.
Shoppers are well-acquainted with the fake designer goods racket. They know they are buying counterfeits, choosing to be complicit in a crime in pursuit of a bargain.
But what about the shadow economy for counterfeit food products?
The eggs of a Mississippi river fish passed off as sturgeon caviar, French Perigord truffles that actually come from China, cow’s milk masquerading as water buffalo’s in mozzarella di bufala; these are just a few of the scams perpetrated in the specialty food marketplace.
Fraudulent foods are estimated at five to seven per cent of the U.S. food supply. The Food and Drug Administration has been focused on forms of mislabeling and adulteration that threaten food purity and public health, giving little attention to forms of debasement that don’t raise safety alarms. Unscrupulous producers and importers have had a heyday in fake origins and low quality substitutes for premium-priced specialty foods.
Technology makes it easier to detect fraud that would have previously passed unnoticed. DNA can be extracted from the cells of foods like fish, meat, rice, and coffee to be compared with authenticated samples. Isotope ratio analysis can tell you what waters a fish came from and whether it was farmed or wild. When it comes to imports, only 2% of fish are subject to testing, although spot checks have shown mislabeling to be as high as 75% or more for some varieties. And Coldiretti, the Italian farmers’ union, claims that 7 out of 10 Italian products in the U.S. are misrepresented.
Whether they are imports or home-grown fakes, some of your favorite foods are likely to be frauds.
Fish is the most frequently faked food, usually in the form of what the industry calls “species adulteration.” A Consumer Reports nationwide investigation found that a majority of the wild salmon samples it collected were actually less expensive, farmed varieties whose color had been enhanced by dyes added to feed pellets to mimic the vibrant flesh of wild fish. Grouper and red snapper ordered in a restaurant is more likely to be tilapia or catfish than the real deal. But the urban legend of skate wings cut into circles and sold as scallops is just that— a legend. The FDA has never found an actual case of it.
Honey and maple syrup are high-value items that, being mostly sugar, are easily faked. The costly sweeteners are often diluted with cane sugar, corn syrup, or even water. The sneakiest hucksters will substitute beet sugar which passes muster with most product testers.
Vanillan, the chemical copy of the richly organic flavor of true vanilla appears all-too-frequently in prepared foods under the guise of the real thing. Safflower and turmeric are used to extend saffron but contribute little more than yellow color to dishes. And much of the cinnamon we purchase is really cassia, a harsher, cheaper cousin of the real spice.
Fraudulent olive oil is rampant. This must-have for even the casual home cook is subject to numerous forms of fakery. High-grade extra virgin oil might not actually come from the first, virgin pressing of olives, and the actual country of origin is anyone’s guess. Bottlers have long been known to top off with inexpensive soybean oil in quantities that range from ten to ninety percent of the oil’s volume. Chlorophyll is added to maintain the deep yellow-green of true extra virgin olive oil. Connecticut became the first state to set olive oil standards, followed by California where 60-70% of the state’s extra-virgin oil has been estimated as adulterated.
You can report suspected food fraud to the FDA either through its website or food hotline at 888-723-3366.
Operation Rotten Tomato, the Great Rice Scam: read about the biggest food frauds of the past decade.