The Food-Fraud Writing On The Wall? Get Back To Basics

The Food-Fraud Writing On The Wall? Get Back To Basics

With “fake food” reports up 60% this year alone, isn't it time we get back to eating REAL Food?

Most of us just assume that we’re buying safe food when we go to the grocery store.  After all, the government protects us, right?  Well….some laws are in place, but whether they’re being enforced is another story..

This just became more evident when the scientific nonprofit, USP, United States Pharmacopeial Convention, announced that new reports of fake and contaminated food products submitted to its Food Fraud database rose a whopping 60% this past year alone.

So now what, does our food need to be fingerprinted?  Well, maybe, but as Americans, we’re really asking for it. We eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh, consuming more packaged food per person than nearly all other countries. A good chunk of the American diet is ready-to-eat meals, like frozen pizzas and microwave dinners, and sweet or salty snack foods. 

There’s no question about it, processed foods are more easily contaminated. But they also contain larger amounts of fat, salt and sugar, and other things to which we've nowbecome addicted. Epidemiologic studies have shown that these lead to higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.  

Read my cut-to-the-chase analysis of  “The State of Our Health: Our Modern Food and Agriculture Systems” chapter in my comprehensive book, Truly Cultured: Rejuvenating Taste, Health and Community.

Food Industry Foolery.  The food trickery we’re talking about here is right in line with many common, often confusing (though not illegal) food marketing tactics.

These range from shrinking package sizes while price remains the same, distracting emotional-based marketing, addicting food technology, hiding chemical ingredients in nebulous phrases like “natural” flavoring, using many types of sugar to keep it from being listed first on the label, and one of the biggest insults  -- NOT labeling some ingredients at all -- like GMO’s -- because according to the government, “there’s no difference.”   Phoeey.

But how would you know?   You probably wouldn't, unless you’re a food chemist or like me, have worked for the large food corporations.  Did you know that some foods, like ketchup and mayonnaise, aren't even required to list their ingredients on labels, if they comply with the “Standards of Identity” for that food product in the FDA databases in Washington, DC.  Nothing wrong per se, this is supposed to promote honesty and protect consumers.

Standards of Identity are legal definitions of food products, just as are standards of quality and fill. They are defined and maintained by the FDA under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act for staple foods like dairy products, milk, cream, sour cream, eggs, and different types of chocolate, cocoa and other foods. And like I said, they’re supposed to promote honesty and protect us consumers. Even if you don’t know about them.  

But to be clear, the dramatic rise in this type of food counterfeiting is outright illegal.  It is fraud, and we’re all paying for it. Ironically, most of the offending foods USP found to be “cheapified” or adulterated are the premium ones considered healthiest.

Pomegranate juice, olive oil, tea, coffee, milk, lemon juice, seafood, and maple syrup top the list. Honey is being mixed with cheaper sugars like high-fructose corn syrup.  Spices like saffron, turmeric, black and chili peppers are being cut with cheaper varieties. Fillers like fern leaves in tea and watered-down liquids were some of the other top imposters.

Using cheaper substitutes or extenders is a common trick.  For example, cheap chocolate is often “extended” with carob and wax, and coffee has been found to contain roasted chicory, traditionally popular in the South.  Chicory root or chicory powder has also been detected in instant coffee, cocoa, cocoa mix and cocoa powder.  Melamine has been found in milk.  Corn, sunflower, soybean, palm oil, palm kernel oil, and paraffin oils have all been discovered in “pure” coconut oil.  Expensive argan oil, now being used in natural food store cosmetics, has been found tainted with soybean oil. These are just a few examples.  You're supposed to get what the label says.

Crime of the 21st Century.  No one knows the true cost of food-related fraud, but product counterfeiting has been described by the FBI as the crime of the 21st century.  Overall it “costs an estimated $600 billion in global trade and wreaks dire consequences on global health, safety and economic consequences for individuals, corporations, government and society," according to A-CAPPP, the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program at the University of Michigan.

Yet in an environment, a culture stretching from Washington State to Washington, DC, where virtually NO ONE is accountable or takes responsibility for their actions, what do you expect?   Do you think the food industry is any different?

Bottomline:   Food manufacturers are no different from tire or television manufacturers.  Their primary allegiance is to stockholders to make a profit. They do so by reducing costs and raising prices.  The name of the game is buying materials as cheaply as possible and selling finished products as high as possible, what the market will bear, whether it’s canned peaches, cream puffs or microwaveable casseroles. Legally or illegally. And the lines are often blurred. 

As  Byron Beerbower,  Compliance Manager, Michigan Dept of Agriculture and Rural Development says, “In the food end of the world, where profit margins are measured in pennies or parts of pennies, if you can substitute something of lesser value and sell it for a higher value, you make a lot more money.“

Over two third’s (2/3’s) of our food dollar goes to marketing these processed foods, which food companies do with bright, often misrepresented labels, exaggerated or misleading claims in separate advertising (not on product labels) backed by plenty of psychological research, playing on emotions with warm and fuzzy commercials giving the impression you will be thin, beautiful, and sexy if you consume these products. 

As awareness about health increases, we see more and more artificially-concocted “technofoods” with manufacturers touting their products as beneficial, whether they are or not. I’ve actually coined a new term for this: “healthifying”  which you can read about in my “Rainbow of Foods and Dietary Trends” chapter from my book, Truly Cultured.

Who’s protecting Us?    Depending upon the food, the USDA, FDA, federal and state agencies have jurisdiction here.  Budgets are tight, yet, are they doing their jobs?    Evidence keeps mounting to question this. 

In October 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave the FDA failing grades for preventing false and misleading labeling. GAO found that while the number of food firms and products has increased dramatically, the FDA’s oversight and enforcement actions “have not kept pace.”  As a result, the “FDA has little assurance that companies comply with food labeling laws and regulations,” says the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s “Food Labeling Chaos” report.

So, whadda we gonna do about it?  Isn’t it time we Get REAL with this? Read my conclusions and the simplest actions you can take to be assured that you and your family are getting safer, healthier foods in my  “9 Ways the Fake Food Alert Can Help Your Family Eat Better” sequel on