Sorry, Shoppers: You Can’t Trust Food Labels

New report shows rising instances of food fraud.

Is your olive oil made from 100 percent olives? Food fraud is making it harder for you to know. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Jan 23, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

If olive oil, pomegranate juice, honey, tea, spices or seafood regularly make your grocery shopping list, listen up: You may be getting duped.

In a report issued today, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) says it has added 800 new records of food fraud, culled from a variety of published studies and media reports, to its existing database of 1,300 cases released last April.

“We suspect that what we know about the topic [of food fraud] is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Jeffery Moore, senior scientific liaison for USP.

Where is food fraud most likely to occur? According to ABC News, liquids and spices are the most likely to be adulterated. For example, olive oil is often diluted with inferior oils. In other instances, tea bags have been found to contain lawn grass or fern leaves, while pantry items like paprika and saffron were tainted by dangerous food colorings.

Fruit juices were high on the counterfeit list as well. Pomegranate juice was found to be diluted with grape and pear juice; sometimes it didn’t contain any pomegranate at all. Even lemon juice failed the squeeze test, as did maple syrup and even black pepper.

We've frequently reported on seafood fraud—something USP added to their list for the first time this year. The species they say is most likely to be a fake? Escolar (aka "The Diarrhea Fish"), known for its purgative effects, is frequently mislabled as white tuna or butterfish.

Geoff Shester, California program director for Oceana, says the numerous cases of mislabeled fish cited by USP is in line with organization's own seafood fraud work.

"This is a clear indication of how serious seafood fraud has become. Clearly, people are getting the message from the various fraud results Oceana has revealed across the country that consumers are regularly being duped when they buy seafood," he tells TakePart. "People have a reasonable expectation that when they buy seafood, it is what they say it is, but we now know that is often not the case."

We can't expect the problem to go away anytime soon either. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. food imports have been growing rapidly—from $41 billion in 1998 to nearly $78 billion in 2007, and include goods from countries like Canada, Mexico, Chile, China, Vietnam, Brazil and more. With that increasing global appetite comes opportunity for fraud. Francine Pierson, spokesperson for USP, tells TakePart that many incidences of fraud in the database occurred outside of the U.S., and that they don’t keep track of the percentage found domestically.

"The food supply in the U.S. is very safe overall, but the database is a good tool for regulators and manufacturers, especially since foods that originate in one country can be imported into others. To maintain a safe food supply, ongoing and constant vigilance is required especially in the light of globalizing supply chains. Just because food is safe today will not necessarily mean that it is safe tomorrow unless all stakeholders are engaged and vigilant,” she says in an email.

So what’s a consumer to do? Your best defense, say experts, is to buy whole foods, meaning a fresh lemon, instead of bottled lemon juice. Purchase food from sources you trust, and look for indicators of transparency. For example, seek out the bottle of olive oil that says when the fruit was harvested and pressed. Look for trustworthy labeling like Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for seafood, and whenever possible, try to determine your food’s country of origin. Honey sourced from China is more likely to be suspect (and possibly even tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals) than that squeezable honey bear you bought at your local farmers market.

Want to do your own sleuthing? USP’s Food Fraud Database is free for the searching.

Similar stories on TakePart:

• Honey Fraud: Do You Know Where Your Sweet Stuff Is Coming From?

• Hard to Swallow: The Decade's Five Worst Food Frauds

• NYC’s Seafood-Fraud Problem