Food Fraud: Is that olive oil really from Italy?

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.

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6 Responses to Food Fraud: Is that olive oil really from Italy?

  1. Janice says:

    Thank you, Dick. Good stuff! I didn’t realize olive oil was such a slippery business (sorry, pun WAS intended). I always think of Italian producers as so proud and protective of their DOCs and IGTs. Probably a bit of Euro-food snobbery on my part.
    It reminds me of the Tropicana orange juice cartons that say ‘Florida squeezed.’ Now that’s an industry that needs a spotlight shined on its dark and dirty secrets.

  2. Dick Dagger says:

    Hang on a minute. Until very recently, Under Italian law olive oils from other countries could be bottled in Italy and be labelled as product of Italy. Yep that’s right, the practice was allowed under Italian Law.

    That’s the Italian way! Shaft the poor Tunisians and Moroccans who work for less than $1 an hour picking olives so that that lots of oil ends up in fancy Italian bottles labelled as Product of Italy. Absolutely disgraceful. While the laws have changed (EU led by the way, not by Italy.. Too much money to be made for doing nothing), we wait with baited breath to see if the practices change. I doubt it.

    Other countries actually have laws which state the country where the product was made, not just packed. When it comes to olive oil, the Italians have perfected the art of scamming consumers. But not everyone is like them. So lets point the finger specifically at the perpetrators. There are lots of honest hard working producers of extra virgin olive oil all round the world who are sick and tired of being tarred by the same brush as the Italian scumbags who have made billions from diluting the “Italian brand”. But the Italian policy makers are complicit in all of this. Hopefully they will all pay one day when the concept of Product of Italy means absolutely nothing in the eyes of the consumers.

  3. Great article! I knew stuff like this happens, but had no idea it was quite this rampant. Fake handbags and watches are one thing, faked food is much worse as public health concerns arise – how can some people be so unscrupulous??! Consumers need to know this is happening on a much wider scale then is currently being realised, to safeguard health and well being – even more important than avoiding being hoodwinked! Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  4. My God, this is scary. In the Philippines we have this “Magic Sugar” where vendors of beverages use. They add just a small sachet of this magic sugar in a big cooler, enough to sweeten that big container of juice. It is said to be cancerous. A lot of powdered parmesan have fillers like starches, and some truffle oil are artificially flavored..

  5. Janice says:

    That’s why we brought back the Casa Emma.

  6. Michael says:

    90% of the oil’s volume could be mere soybean oil??? Clearly we should all live in Italy!

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