Beware of Food Fraud

You may think you’re looking out for your family’s health and budget as you make your way through the grocery aisles, but be careful—all is not necessarily as it seems.

Food fraud—the practice of mislabeling, adulterating, and otherwise misrepresenting a food product—is a real and growing problem.

Here are some telling examples:
• A Virginian was convicted in 2009 of selling 10 million pounds of Vietnamese catfish as red snapper, flounder, and grouper.
• More than half of the “wild salmon” sampled in a Consumer Reports study was actually farm-raised.
• In Connecticut, officials found samples of “extra-virgin olive oil” that were actually 90% soybean oil.

Dr. John Spink, associate director of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program (A-CAPPP) at Michigan State University in East Lansing, says the key factors behind food fraud are profit, unmet demand, difficulty in detecting fraud, lack of laws against it, and limited enforcement. But now, a globalized economy and widely available technology are fueling its growth.

There are three basic types of harm from food fraud, Spink says, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

1. Direct—It’s toxic, and if you eat it, you’ll get ill right away.
2. Indirect—The absence of a benefit, like a low dose of vitamin C. Indirect harm also can result if a troublesome substance builds up in the consumer’s system.
3. Technical—For example, when the country of origin is mislabeled.

When food fraud gets downright dangerous, Spink says there are effective systems in place to deal with it, similar to the response a salmonella outbreak would provoke.

If you’d like to avoid an identity crisis with your grocery list, Spink suggests patronizing merchants with a vested interest in keeping you as a repeat customer.

Buying local isn’t always better, Spink says—the key is relationships.

“And if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he adds. “There’s a difference between inexpensive and cheap.”

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