Is that really sturgeon caviar you're spreading on your baguette? Or is it a cheap impostor from the Mississippi Delta? Chances are, the average consumer will never know if he's been duped by a crooked food merchant. But The Washington Postreported Tuesday that federal regulators are being urged to crack down on so-called food fraud, where unscrupulous vendors intentionally sell a cheaper food product as its more expensive cousin. Everyone, it seems, from the foodie down the street to the giant Heinz corporation, has been suckered by a food huckster.
Food fraud dates at least back to 1820, according to New Scientist magazine, when a German scientist wrote an expose on the shady doings of London merchants. It seems the bakers of London Town would cut their bread loaves with alum and chalk to make the loaves whiter.
Today, the Post writes that everything from honey to fruit juice to expensive goat cheese has been doctored, diluted, or dummied up from cheaper substitutes, and sold to an unsuspecting public. And it appears that the deception is most pervasive in the seafood industry.
Some favorite tricks of the trade:
dying olive oil green with chlorophyll to make it appear to be extra virgin
using cow milk instead of buffalo milk to make mozzarella cheese
mixing fruit juices and honeys with sugar beets to make the "natural" products sweeter
Here are five of the boldest food frauds from the past decade:
A Virginia man was convicted by a Los Angeles federal jury in 2008 of conspiring to import more than 10 million pounds of cheap Vietnamese catfish that he passed off as a variety of more expensive fish, including grouper, flounder, and even conger pike—a type of eel. Peter Xuong Lam was sentenced to five years in prison, and 10 other individuals and companies were also charged in the scheme.
A member of one of the most powerful farming families in California was arrested in February 2010, after attempting to flee to Switzerland to avoid accusations that his company sold dated and moldy tomato pastes to major companies across the United States. Frederick Scott Salyer, the former owner of SK Foods, was charged by the feds under the RICO Act, a move usually reserved for mobsters and made men. Among Salyer's alleged victims are Kraft Foods and Heinz USA. The FBI's name for the investigation that busted Salyer? Operation Rotten Tomato.
In late 2006, the owner of two Florida Panhandle seafood distributors was sentenced to more than four years in prison, and fined $1.1 million, for passing off more than one million pounds of cheaper Vietnamese catfish as grouper, the prized fish of Florida. Because grouper filets are usually served fried and battered in Florida restaurants, naive consumers can't always tell the difference. But real grouper can fetch four times as much as Vietnamese catfish, and investigators found that more than 60 percent of the "grouper" examined in Florida was actually fraudulent.
In 2003, U.K. consumers were victims of the great rice scam. Nearly half of all the Basmati rice sold in Great Britain was adulterated. Instead of the flavorful long-grain rice from the fertile paddies of northern India and Pakistan, Britons were buying cheap substitutes.
And in a case of massive fraud that had deadly consequences, China was rocked in 2008 when more than 6,000 children were sickened by tainted milk. Investigators found than at least 10 percent of the milk produced by three of the country's largest dairies had been adulterated with melamine, an industrial chemical used to make the milk appear richer in protein.