Counterfeit Cuisine: The Dangers of Rampant Food Fraud

Food fraud can happen to anyone. And regulators lack adequate resources to stop you from paying too much for the wrong species of fish or for corrupted versions of olive oil, honey or maple syrup. But if you examine labels and scrutinize prices, you can reduce the likelihood of being a victim.

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The next time that you buy a fish fillet from the supermarket seafood counter or choose a seafood item off a restaurant menu, don’t assume that you’re getting what you want. Experts say food fraud is a major problem in this country—particularly when it comes to seafood. So if you pay $15 to get wild salmon at a restaurant but unwittingly get $6 farm-raised salmon, you’ve become yet another victim.

Although such fraud is most common with seafood, plenty of other products should give you pause, too. The olive oil that you drizzle on your salad, the maple syrup that you pour on your pancakes and even the honey that you use to sweeten your tea all-too-easily can be cheap versions of what the product’s high-priced label says. 

To top it off, recent efforts to eliminate or at least to reduce the possibility that you’ll be a victim of food fraud aren’t likely to make a significant dent in the problem, according to the independent experts whom we interviewed. Food and Drug Administration, which is charged with protecting you against food fraud, lacks the proper resources to do the extensive testing that could prevent you from being ripped off. That means that food producers—and the seafood industry in particular—largely police themselves, and even the most well-intentioned self-regulation creates opportunities for unscrupulous companies to exploit consumers.

The ugly truth is that you can do little to avoid being the victim of food fraud, says Teresa Green of National Consumers League. “Unless you have the capacity to take your olive oil or fish to a laboratory [for testing], there are very few ways that a consumer can check,” she says. “Even chefs can’t always tell the difference.”

Although no approach is foolproof, experts say you can reduce the odds of being a food-fraud victim if you read labels carefully and scrutinize prices, because those factors can raise red flags about, say, your “red snapper.”

FOOD FIGHT. Getting a handle on the scope of food fraud that’s in the United States is difficult, because the best statistics that are available for tracking food fraud examine only the worldwide effect. What’s more, FDA inspects only 2.1 percent of imported food overall and 1.2 percent of imported seafood. FDA couldn’t tell us how those estimates compare with previous years. An FDA pilot program that uses DNA to test U.S.-produced seafood for fraud is coming, but FDA gave no indication when that program would begin.

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Nonetheless, a mountain of anecdotal evidence exists to convince experts that food fraud is a serious problem in the United States. And seafood is the most commonly mislabeled product, they say. If your idea of seafood is frozen fish sticks or inexpensive canned tuna, you shouldn’t worry about fraud, because the species that are used to create those products are so inexpensive that manufacturers have no motivation to commit economic fraud, experts say. But getting seafood from the supermarket counter or at a restaurant presents a potential fraud risk.

At least 1,700 seafood species are available for sale in the United States, and it’s difficult for consumers to educate themselves about the differences between species. All white-fish fillets can look the same to the untrained seafood shopper. In addition, 86 percent of the roughly $80 billion in seafood that U.S. consumers eat each year primarily comes from Asia, in particular China and Thailand, National Marine Fisheries Service says. That makes it even more difficult for federal officials to detect fraud in what little seafood that they inspect. 

And fraud can be perpetrated anywhere along the line, from fish that’s sold at the dock in Asia to the label under which it’s shipped into the United States and even the tag that’s jabbed into an inviting line of fillets at your local fish market.

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