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Frozen food in Burgos.

Photographed in February 2013, boxes of La Cocinera meals are displayed at a supermarket in Burgos, Spain. The frozen food company was one of several that came under fire earlier this year, after tests revealed horse DNA in some products labeled "beef."

Photograph by Cesar Manso, AFP/Getty Images

Catherine Zuckerman

National Geographic

Published July 12, 2013

 

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

The farm-to-table trend is cooking. Urban gardening is on the rise. And high-end chefs are riding the locavore wave, promising superior, sustainable ingredients that can be traced back to their fields and pastures, which are often just a few miles down the road.

 

It feels as though a new age of food transparency has dawned.

But has it really?

As shown by Europe's recent horsemeat scandal—in which scores of products labeled as "beef" were found to contain up to 100 percent horsemeat—and arrests last spring of Chinese traders who were allegedly peddling rat meat as lamb, there's still considerable mystery around where a lot of our food comes from.

In many cases, that mystery extends to exactly what it is we're eating.

"Unfortunately, controlling the amount of fraud that occurs daily in the food industry is next to impossible," said Michael Roberts, a professor of food law and policy at UCLA and director of the Center for Food Law and Policy.

"Almost anything can be adulterated in some way," he added, "either to persuade consumers to buy something for their health, or by diluting it to save money on the supplier end."

It's a problem that spans the globe.

A recent study found that in South Africa, nearly 80 percent of products labeled "game" actually contained varying amounts of nongame animals, including giraffe, waterbuck, and kangaroo. The most egregious filler: mountain zebra, a species that is "red listed"—meaning it's at risk for extinction—by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

 

A mountain zebra inside Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia. The animal—which the International Union for Conservation of Nature says is at risk of extinction—has been used as filler in some South African meat products.

Photograph by Blaine Harrington III, Alamy

 

Unlike in Europe and some other places, meat fraud has not been a widespread problem in the United States, thanks largely to tough regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But seafood made headlines earlier this year when Oceana, an international nonprofit dedicated to ocean conservation, issued a report announcing that one-third of the fish sampled during a nationwide survey was incorrectly labeled.

Efforts like the recently proposed Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act (SAFE) and the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are helping draw public attention to the problem.

Experts say the most important thing consumers can do is ask questions about what they're about to buy: Who caught or farmed it? Where was it shipped from? What's in it?

If the retailer can't provide answers, some experts recommend shopping or dining elsewhere.

But even with the best intentions to shop for goods that are what their labels claim they are, consumers will likely encounter food fraud at some point along the way.

That could include a lovely salmon filet marked "wild" at the fish counter. Or the cereal made of "whole grains." Labels like "extra virgin olive oil" and "orange blossom honey" seem straightforward, but truth is that none are as reliable as you think.

It's in the Water

UCLA's Roberts describes the main impulse behind food fraud—increasing the value of a product and growing profits by cheating in processing and labeling—as "economic adulteration."

"This includes unapproved enhancement," he said, "like adding melamine to milk [which has happened in China], or you mislabel something, like sunflower oil may be sold as olive oil, or you dilute with water, or you substitute—for example, using beet sugar instead of honey."

The practice is running rampant in the U.S. seafood industry, according to the recent Oceana report.

The group's investigation found the highest levels of fraud related to red snapper; of 120 samples labeled as such, just seven turned out to be that fish. Other samples turned out to be rockfish, tilapia, and tilefish—a species known to contain mercury and which the Food and Drug Administration lists as harmful to pregnant women and children.

 

A red snapper swims up close in the waters off the Pacific Ocean's Kingman Reef. The fish is subject to widespread fraud in U.S. restaurants and supermarkets, according to a recent study.

Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic

 

"Everywhere we tested we found seafood fraud," said Beth Lowell, a campaign director at Oceana.

Over 90 percent of seafood in the U.S. is imported, and only about 2 percent of that catch is inspected at the border. Even less is checked for fraud, said Lowell, who wants the FDA to step up regulation and inspections.

Theresa Eisenman, an FDA spokesperson, acknowledges that species substitution can be a public health risk, and said the agency is working toward "better-targeted and more efficient sampling strategies to identify seafood misbranding and adulteration."

Eisenman said the agency takes a prevention-oriented approach to seafood safety, including risk-based inspections and product tests.

Oceana wants Congress to pass the SAFE Act, introduced in March, to help combat seafood fraud. The bill mandates more cooperation and data sharing between federal agencies, particularly the FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, when it comes to inspections.

The proposed legislation would also require fishers to provide detailed information on their catches, including where and how fish were caught. The aim is total traceability, allowing consumers to follow seafood "from boat to plate."

Oceana's Lowell said that certain seafood dealers, like Red's Best in New England, are leading the charge with a commitment to "reducing the distance between you and your fisherman," allowing customers to track their fish back to the fisher who caught it using QR codes.

Sweet Sleuth

That kind of technology could dramatically change the honey industry.

Vaughn Bryant, director of Texas A&M's Palynology Laboratory and a leading pollen expert, said that when it comes to purchasing honey at the store, "let the buyer beware."

Much of it, he said, contains absolutely no pollen, despite what might be printed on the jar. Without pollen, there's no way to trace where a batch of honey came from.

These days, much of it comes from China, whose honey is subject to anti-dumping tariffs—duties that the U.S. government imposes on imported products that are being sold at less than fair market value. Chinese honey has recently made news for being "laundered" in places like Vietnam and Thailand.

 

A vendor in Yemen pours honey at his shop in Sanaa on September 26, 2012. The honey trade has become a sticky business, in which pollen is often removed and origins are fudged.

Photograph by Mohammed Huwais, AFP/Getty Images

 

"People importing honey want to make sure that what they're buying is really what they're getting," said Bryant. "One person wants to import a sizeable amount of honey from India, and wants to be sure they're getting Indian honey and not Chinese honey. "

Consumers may wish to purchase honey with a certain type of pollen for various health reasons, and while they're still getting honey, they may not be getting the kind they desire.

The issue is more serious for importers, said Bryant, who want to make sure what they're getting is legal. If not, they could end up in court.

Bryant has spent four decades working as a melissopalynologist, someone who studies pollen in honey. Many importers send him samples, to test whether the honey is from where the seller says it's from.

"I look at about 150 to 200 samples a year," Bryant said.

More often than not, he finds that the honey samples don't contain the clover, tupelo, or other pollen listed on the label. Even the ones that do contain some pollen, he said, are mostly incorrectly marked.

In 2011, Bryant ran a test on honeys from several national grocery store chains and drugstores and found that nearly all were totally devoid of pollen. (Most people wouldn't be able to tell by taste, he said, in the same way that many people aren't able to pick up on nuances in wine.)

The FDA does not require food processors or importers to leave pollen in honey, as European regulators do. "If you purchase clover honey in Europe and it says clover honey [on the label], then by God it better be clover honey or you're going to get sued," Bryant said.

The FDA has posted import alerts for honey on its website. The most recent warns against brands from India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Vietnam, in which imitation syrups, such as corn or cane, were found in place of actual nectar.

Froot Juice?

Fruit juice is another prime target for what UCLA's Roberts calls economic adulteration.

Most of the juice in juice beverages is apple, he said, even if it's labeled blueberry or cranberry: "Apple juice is the cheapest, and manufacturers aren't required to list percentages on the label."

Mary Donovan of the Juice Products Association, an advocate for the juice products industry, said federal law requires that labels on juice beverages list ingredients in descending order of prominence (based on weight) and declare the total percentage of fruit juice a beverage contains.

"Juice blends, including some blueberry and cranberry juices, may contain a more mild juice such as apple or pear to meet consumer preferences for taste," she said.

The FDA, which regulates juice, took action this year in response to complaints it received about adulterated pomegranate juice.

After conducting tests on several products, the agency issued an alert on certain pomegranate juice brands from Turkey and Iran in February, saying they contained "undeclared ingredients" like "black currant, apple, pear or cherry juices in place of pomegranate juice."

Hungry for Change

There is some good news in the battle against food fraud.

In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which gives the FDA more authority to require higher levels of testing and compliance across the food chain, with a heavy emphasis on preventing problems (like foodborne illness) rather than reacting to them.

The bill is focused on food safety, but UCLA's Roberts hopes it will shed light on food fraud as well. "It's a possible tool to help combat economic adulteration," he said, in part because "it requires the FDA for the first time to inspect foreign facilities that import products into the U.S."

As far as budgeting for economic adulteration, the FDA's Eisenman said it's hard to estimate how much the agency spends combating food fraud because those cases are classified as general food safety.

But the agency does have a group dedicated to what it calls "economically motivated adulteration." Established in 2011, the task force includes scientists, economists, and lawyers whose job is to draw more attention to food fraud and to establish ways to prevent it.

Roberts feels that the tide is turning somewhat. "I have found a difference in their response," he said, referring to the FDA's economic adulteration task force. "There's a greater recognition that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with."

 

An employee of the DDCSPP (Departmental Directorate of Social Cohesion and Protection of Populations) inspects meat at a supermarket in Besançon, France, on March 1, 2013.

Photograph by Sebastien Bozon, AFP/Getty Images

 

But he said that battling food fraud will take more than regulation: "There are limited resources, the global food system is too complicated, and there are too many points of entry for imported food."

The solution, he said, is a mix of greater enforcement, better standards for identifying food, and a "box of cooperation" between industry, science, government, and consumers.

In the meantime, experts urge consumers to keep asking questions. The FDA recommends that people buy from reputable sources and consult its seafood list, which gives the acceptable market names for different kinds of fish. It said consumers should be wary of unusually low prices for items that they know generally cost more.

Have you been the victim of food fraud? Are there foods you won't eat for fear of being tricked? Share your stories in the comments.

Follow Catherine Zuckerman on Twitter.

37 comments
Jonathan Krailller
Jonathan Krailller

I thought this article was well written although I had to read through some of the comments to understand the implications of pollen not being present in honey.  I actually enjoy honey more than sugar and was not aware this.  I beleive it is good that the FDA and USDA are trying to decrease the amount of food fraud.  As information increase on food fraud it may lead to more local farms and higher standards of food which can benefit everyone.

T H
T H

I don't think the FDA, USDA or any other agency / regulation will adequately b able to address the problem. As long as there is money involved fraud will b there. The FDA and USDA r way too cozy with the industry and no amount of funding or regulation will change that, it may even make it worse since more funding means more of the same, more personal means more hands to be paid off somehow.
Fearmongering about some medicine given to a small subset of animals is not likely effective. We knew for years that most chickens r systematically fed arsenic to kill pathogens and that the arsenic remains in the meat we eat. Did that stop a significant % of the population to stop eating meat? No

There is hope, however. Microfluidic devices r becoming cheaper and smaller at a very rapid pace. They r already available for cellphones (e.g. glucose monitoring) and in a few short years may b mainstream. At that point ur phone will resemble more of a tricorder and will b able to sample ur environment for DNA, chemical composition and microscopic imagery. At that point we the consumers can tell, decide and vote with r $

T H
T H like.author.displayName 1 Like

I know some ppl have an issue when I hunt for deer although it is needed for population control since most of their predators r gone.

However, when I do, I know where the meat is coming from, how it was processed, what's been added or not and I have a pretty good idea what the animal ate.

Sylvia Ferragut
Sylvia Ferragut like.author.displayName 1 Like

This makes me want to go live on a sustainable farm and fish on Lake Michigan every summer. And keep bees. Honey is delicious.

Earl Stewart
Earl Stewart

It is unfortunate that this is such a large problem here in America. If I am being completely honest about my beliefs, I would say that both the FDA and USDA have been bought off a long time ago. That they care little for the American people. These companies are still in business with little to no penalty. The American farmer has been all but crushed under these tools of government with the exception of the Monsanto farmers. I find it ironic the article talks about Obama's help. I remember a campaign promise to get GMO products labeled. In contrast, I remember seeing him sign the Monsanto protection act into law. It seems this is a losing battle at the expense of America's health and well-being. The closer you can get to the source the healthier you will be. Heritage seeds, raised meats, and raw milk is the way I roll.  

Peter Jones
Peter Jones

Why are we comparing the mislabeling of honey, fish and olive oil with the inclusion of melamine in baby formula???

The first is harmless and mostly preys on pretentious foodies. Melamine toxicity is deadly (especially in kids) 

Jeff Karpinski
Jeff Karpinski like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@Peter Jones

 Sorry, but mislabeling of the foods you listed is definitely not harmless or a "foodie fixation". If a pregnant woman unknowingly eats fish high in mercury or someone who's allergic to sunflowers consumes food prepared with bogus oil, the health results can be devastating.

These are real dangers, not idle speculation because I've seen them up close: a family member who is severely allergic to sunflowers nearly died when she ate a candy bar that contained unlabeled sunflower oil. 

Deane Alban
Deane Alban like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

You lightly touched on olive oil, but olive oil fraud runs rampant. University of California found that 69% of "extra virgin olive oil" sold in the US is fake -meaning either it isn't extra virgin or even't even olive oil so will have none of real olive oil's health benefits. Ironically California olive oil is more likely to be the real thing than bottles labeled "Italy". You can see a list of which brands passed, and which didn't here: http://bit.ly/13c2Mo1

Jeannette H.
Jeannette H. like.author.displayName 1 Like

it would be nice if we could trust the USDA and the FDA to be on the side of consumers.  some of the problem is lack of funding, some of it is industry influences.  the USDA appoints meat producers (the factory employees in the factory farms and slaughter houses) to do the safety and purity inspecting.  how secure is their job with their employer if they are consistantly red flagging contaminated product?  not very!

First Last
First Last

Not to make light of the problem of adulteration, but according to WebMD at least, scientists still cannot confirm that bee pollen has any health benefits. 

Also, what in the world is "less than fair market value"? This sounds like an excuse touted by a producer whose prices are higher than a competitor's. If you sell your product more cheaply than mine, how is that unfair?

Jeannette H.
Jeannette H.

@First Last it isn't necessarily that the bee pollen has benefits, but that you are getting what you are paying for.  specific source plants for honey result in a higher price for the honey.  and the presence of pollen indicates actual HONEY, not the adulterated chinese stuff which includes sugar, corn syrup etc in order to lower the price.  as far as i know, testing for the presence of pollen is the easiest way to guard against all these sorts of fraud.


Bee Kay
Bee Kay like.author.displayName 1 Like

@First Last @First Last If (Chinese) producers dump their products at a price lower than cost for long enough, they can force out their competitors and create an unnatural monopoly, then raise prices as they see fit.


It's simple economics.


If you produce a widget at $5 and sell it at $7, and your competitor produces a widget at $7 and sells it at $4, they'll put you out of business and are then free to raise their price to $10/widget.

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

@Bee Kay @First Last   But if the low-ball guys keeps it up long enough, they will go out of business.  And if you disallow this sort of business activity, then you disallow poor people having a job.

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

@First Last If you still worship at the altar of modern medicine, you basically have no clue.  Those serious about their own health have learned to look outside the box and trust their own experience for answers.

But I agree with you about "fair market value".  Fair market value is whatever you can get.

Roger Bird
Roger Bird like.author.displayName 1 Like

The reason that there is so much activity in the locavore and CSA arena is exactly because of what this excellent article is pointing out, and because we know that the FDA and the USDA won't be able to do everything that needs to be done.  Also, the FDA has not exactly been on the side of health by favoring pharmaceutical drugs and oppressing natural and complementary healing for the last 100 freaking years and 2 months of tyranny; so why should we trust them now.

As long as there is a big separation between consumer and producer, producers will cheat.  And as long as we have competitive pressure, cheating producers will get the economic upper hand.  And as long as producers because very rich, they will corrupt government agencies, like the FDA.

Melissa Ohlsson
Melissa Ohlsson

@Jack H, Who cares what they eat in other cultures?  No one that knows anything about horses would willingly eat one.  Allowing horse slaughter plants to reopen condones the killing of horses that have received drugs that are banned in animals destined for the human (and pet!) food chain. 

Before you jumped in with your "opinion",  you would've benefited from a little research on horse slaughter and the dangers it poses to environmental and human health. @Vickery Eckhoff is a respected and well published, Forbes journalist that put in the time and effort necessary to research this issue thoroughly.  That makes her the "Go To" expert regarding horse slaughter plants in the US and the health hazards they possess.

T H
T H

@Melissa Ohlsson 
I think the rejection of particular cultures is a form of racism.
Tolerance of other peoples views and way of life is what we need if we want some peace on r planet that has shrunk to a global community.
No one if forcing anybody to eat a horse unless the meat winds up fraudulently mixed it and mislabeled. Making it illegal makes it lucrative and thereby invites the fraud we're trying to combat.
I've worked with horses and many other animals. They r all smart and trainable and can all become loyal friends, even the lowly rodents. I am wondering why u elevate the horse out of all the other mammals?

Ron Schreiber
Ron Schreiber

To a great degree we are all victims of food fraud.  "Natural Ingredients" are the biggest fraud.  Castorium is a "natural ingredient"  derived from the anal gland of a beaver- which has decimated the European beaver population.  Now they are going after the Canadian beaver population.  The FDA will NOT release a list of so called "natural ingredients.  I've asked many times with not even an answer.

Catherine Zuckerman
Catherine Zuckerman

@Ron Schreiber Yes, labels like "natural" and even to some extent "organic" can be quite misleading. I haven't heard about the use of castorium and its impact on beaver populations, so thanks for sharing.

Viren Lalka
Viren Lalka

Excellent articile !! The financial services industry has similar issues !!

No load Mutual funds !!!  You never know what points/fees/charges are included !!   Be a healthy Sceptic...........

Viren Lalka
Viren Lalka

Excellent articile !! The financial services industry has similar issues !!

No load Mutual funds !!!  You never know what points/fees/charges are included !!   Be a healthy Sceptic...........

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore like.author.displayName 1 Like

Welcome to planet Earth. The world is a scam!

Vickery Eckhoff
Vickery Eckhoff

The US imports beef from countries that slaughter horses in the same facilities and does little to no DNA testing. Its budget has been cut $31 billion as it begs Congress to defund horse slaughter inspections, which both Congress and the White House are recommending, even if they haven't done anything about it. At the same time, the USDA is poised to issue permits for three horse slaughter plants to produce meat laced with racetrack drugs and other common equine meds that are banned in food animals because they produce fatal illnesses in people.

This contradicts the claim that "meat fraud has not been a widespread problem in the United States, thanks largely to tough regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

The USDA isn't a tough regulator of the foods that Americans actually consume, as this article demonstrates. The horse meat industry is not regulated; it wasn't when it existed here, and it won't be if it reopens.

Just what the US doesn't need: spending scarce tax dollars to produce more cheap, unhealthy, meat that we don't even use to make dog food.

You think the seafood market smells fishy?

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Vickery Eckhoff - I read somewhere that much of the beef the US imports comes from Brazil and Argentina. I tell ya, you'd think the US, of all countries, would be self-sufficient in beef.

As far as companies like Valley Meats, et al, slaughtering horses for human consumption, well, that's just downright wrong and shameful, in my opinion.

After all, horses have been valuable and dutiful servants and companions to man for thousands of years. It's tantamount to eating dog or cat meat, for God's sake!

Jonathan Krailller
Jonathan Krailller

Beef from Argentina is actually considered some of the best in the world.  Also beef and bovine products from Australia are considered of higher quality because there are no recorded cases in Australia of B.S.E. or "madcow" disease.

Jack H
Jack H like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Zen Galacticore @Vickery Eckhoff - Eating horsemeat is about as "wrong and shameful" as eating beef. After all, the billion-strong Hindu religion views cows as sacred caretakers, and a number of East Asian countries still commonly use oxen for farm work. Moreover, Italy has a rich, long history of using horses as companions and labor animals, yet also has a thriving horsemeat industry. Ownership of dogs as pets in popular in South Korea, yet eating dog meat has been a long-standing part of their culture.

Most long-standing cultures don't have such simplistic, crudely judgmental lines in the sand about how only "OMG evil!" people eat any species that people around you have kept as pets. It's all relative, and it's nothing less than arrogant ignorance to grandly proclaim otherwise.

Mislabeling horsemeat and passing it off as beef, though, is another matter entirely.

T H
T H

@Jack H @Zen Galacticore @Vickery Eckhoff 
I grew up in Europe and ate horse meat just like beef, pork or poultry. Where I grew up ea cow had it's name and place in it's stall and so did the horses. At some point it was time to slaughter and eat them. It had always (thousands of yrs) been like that and no one had an issue w it.
Even today, u will find a section of horse, lamb etc right next to beef in the supermarkets.

Nobody is forcing u to eat one or the other, but I don't think either is more intelligent than the other (I've cn pigs perform in a circus and many trained them to find truffles, yet we eat bacon).

Eating cats and dogs is, however, a different issue. They r both carnivorous and so have a higher rate of parasites and other pathogens that may be harmful. 

If it is important to u, u can always decide to become vegetarian. Just excluding a particular species cuz they r more frequently kept as a pet is hypocritical IMO.

Selling one for another is shameful and wrong though. Making one illegal invites fraud and is a big part of the problem.

Andy Vandermissen
Andy Vandermissen

@Jack H @Zen Galacticore @Vickery Eckhoff  The eating of dogs is only from the Chinese Culture, not South Korea.


Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Jack H @Zen Galacticore @Vickery Eckhoff By the way, I don't care about, "long-standing cultures". 

I live in the United States of America, and we don't eat dogs, cats, or, until recently and very few of us, horses.

If you want to eat the three above mentioned animals, move to Italy, Korea, or elsewhere. As an American, I personally will not stand for the human consumption of any of the above three, and I have confidence that the vast majority of my fellow Americans will agree with me.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Jack H @Zen Galacticore @Vickery Eckhoff Of course it's all relative. Moral and cultural relativity are both modern catchalls for doing whatever one wants.

We don't eat dog in the United States, and, to my knowledge, it's illegal.

But people like you just like to argue.

SEAN D
SEAN D like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

There is another form of what I would call fraud - the artificial increasing of a product weight by soaking in water or other liquids. This applies especially perhaps to seafood, where typical frozen shrimp/prawns are soaked to increase their weight by 20-30%. Thus what one buys (even the fresh stuff can have this)  is a lot of water that cooks away and much less of what you thought you have. 

T H
T H

@SEAN D 
Read a ham label, they even state that they add (inject) water.
Ham was always soaked in a salt brine, that was normal, but now the salt water is injected into the ham so that the process can b done faster with the added side effect that not just the salt and spices permeate into the ham, but the water is trapped there.

Catherine Zuckerman
Catherine Zuckerman

@SEAN D Interesting point, and while what you're talking about doesn't quite align with what the article addresses, I agree with you that it is a kind of deception.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@SEAN D How about "light" beers? All they do is water them down.

Incidentally, virtually all restaurants that serve say, shrimp cocktail, thaw them in water, where they may soak for and hour or more.

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