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Food Fraud: Feeding Fear and Corporate Greed


By Nellie Stadtherr

My recent post, Healthy Humanitarian? Get Hungry For Fair Trade, elicited a comment that got me thinking. In reference to the potentially negative consequences from the quinoa trend, one reader responded “The trouble here is that many consumers are completely detached from their food sources…” I agree wholeheartedly.

A few summers ago I was interning in Indonesia with Mercy Corps. During a tour of the slums of Northern Jakarta,  one of our local Program Managers warned me to never eat the food from the street vendors. “They add borax to the noodles,” he explained. “It helps them stay fresh throughout the day and look whiter, which is more appetizing.” I was horrified. Especially when I realized that these noodles were most locals’ standard lunch. I could only imagine the damage that must do!

Fast forward to fall, 2012. Enjoying an afternoon of munching an organic apple while reading Women’s Health Magazine to find an article profiling the hidden toxic ingredients in the food commonly found in American grocery stores. According to the author, Gretchen Voss, mislabeled food containing drugs, chemicals, and unrevealed ingredients find their way into our grocery shelves (and our pantries!), making up to seven percent of US food supply.

This scary and disgusting phenomenon is known as “food fraud.” In addition to the Women’s Health article, food fraud has been the topic of many recent media outlets, including NBC, CBS, and The Guardian.  The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), the nonprofit that created the Food Fraud Database, released a new report on January 23, 2013 showing a 60 percent increase in food fraud cases in the past year. The USP defines food fraud as “a collective term that encompasses the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging, or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.”

What I find the most alarming about food fraud is that it seems no product is impervious to its reach. I would not be surprised to discover that Doritos are filled with ingredients Mother Nature didn’t intend us to eat (because that’s exactly what Doritos are). I didn’t blink and eye when news broke that Taco Bell’s “beef” contained less than 35 percent meat. But I was appalled to learn from the USP that potential “ingredients” for milk includes detergent and arsenic-contaminated sodium phosphate; sawdust in tea, coffee, and spices; antibiotics in honey; and tuna that isn’t tuna at all but escolar, which is banned in some countries “due to its high likelihood to cause a special form of food poisoning.”

Hmmm… sounds familiar. The difference is that when I asked my friend in Indonesia how in the world street food vendors thought it was okay to poison people with borax on a daily basis, he simple responded, “They don't know any better. They know it helps them sell more noodles, which means they can feed their own children.” Not that it makes eating borax better, but the intention makes the situation more sad than anything else.

What motivates the global conglomerates that are spiking 30,000 bottles of Worcestershire sauce with carcinogenic food dyes? Profit maximization. Making the cheapest product they can sell in the highest quantity at the highest price, regardless of the serious health implications this can impose. I guess that’s also “sad,” in more of a pathetic, immoral kind of way.

The thing that scares me the most about food fraud is the potential of accidental ingestion of allergens. One of the foods most prone to adulteration is one most of use on a daily basis – olive oil. Our precious EVOO is commonly watered down or cut with soybean or peanut oils. Maybe not that big of a deal if you’re just looking for something to grease your pan. But for the estimated 3 million Americans with peanut allergies, which are often severe and potentially fatal, not knowing what’s in that bottle could be life threatening.

So how can we avoid falling victim to food fraud? How do we stop this epidemic? I think it comes back to the comment about being disconnected from our food sources. Grabbing the items off the shelf without considering their origins has clearly become risky behavior. As consumers, we are the ones who can eliminate food fraud with our purchasing power. If there wasn’t a profit to be made, these products wouldn’t be out there.

Easier said then done, yes. Are we to critically investigate each can of food we purchase? Well….yes and no. The clues are definitely on the packaging and from the source.

Many of us have learned to examine our meat, egg, and dairy labels for terms including “free-range,” “no pesticides,” “no added flavorings,” and “hormone-free.” (Again, kind of sad in a depressing sort of way that we actually have to seek out labels informing of us what unnatural ingredients are NOT in our meat…). We realize that buying organic produce is an option to avoid ingesting pesticides, wax, and chemicals. We can even buy these products directly from the source, visiting our local butcher or farmers market, streamlining the distribution chain.

But what about grains, condiments, and canned food? Most of us can’t visit our local wheat (or quinoa) farm. Most of us don’t make our own ketchup or even have time to soak dry beans. How do we become connected to these types of foods that we’ve come to depend on grocery stores to supply us?

My solution is to purchase products from the brands I trust and take the time to learn about what brands stand for. This is rather easily done by taking the time to evaluate labels and a quick visit to the company’s website.

Let’s take beans for example. Pick up a can of Eden Organics Caribbean Beans and you can immediately tell the food is organic, in a BPA-free can, and contains only, well, real food.  Ingredients read: Organic Black Turtle Beans, Water, Organic Minced Dried Onion, Sea Salt, Organic Paprika Powder, Organic Cayenne Pepper Powder, Organic Cumin Powder, Organic Garlic Powder, Organic Cinnamon Powder, Organic Black Pepper Powder. Their website clearly states their mission and commitment to health and transparency.

Moving further down the aisle one might see a can of Ranch Style Texas Style Beans, another seasoned bean product owned by ConAgra. The brand, which proudly states it’s products “can be found in 97 percent of America’s kitchens,” was sued in 2011 for label fraud.

While the front of the black label doesn’t tell you much beyond the bean’s “Appetite Pleasin’” taste, a spin of the can reveals the longer and less-intuitive ingredient list than Eden Organics’: Pinto beans, water, tomato puree (water, tomato paste), less than 2% of: Blend of Vegetable Oils and Animal Fat (Partially hydrogenated Soybean Oil and/or Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil and Rendered Beef Fat), Salt, Chili Peppers, Sugar, Paprika, Vinegar, Spices, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Natural Flavorings, Soy Lecithin.

It always confuses me when companies have to include an “and/or” clause in their ingredient list… because they aren’t sure what kind of oil they’re using? Hmm. And if some spices are listed, such as paprika, what does the generic “spices” allude to?

I don't think it takes much consideration to determine which of these options is better for you in general and has less likelihood of containing fraudulent ingredients.

As we enter the new, Post-twinkie era, I hope that we can eliminate food fraud not through lawsuits but through more thoughtful purchases. We can become more connected to our food sources, whether it's the farmer, butcher, or brands we can trust from our grocer shelves. We should do this to heal of our bodies, the health of our planet, and the health of our souls.

Are we so hungry that we will allow these profit-hungry conglomerates to continue to poison us? Or can we take the time to savor the taste of purchasing power and support the brands that are committed to something more than money?

Image Credit: Ian Boyd, Flickr

3p Contributor

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