Europe's horsemeat scandal has brought food fraud to the forefront, so much so that we are still reading about horse-peddling restaurateurs back-pedaling on their convictions and what the EU health commissioner's office recommends. But, really, faked food is almost as old as civilization. Today's biggest scams are orchestrated by organized crime groups, and aided by black market chemists with deep knowledge of how to thwart food safety tests. Nobody is quite sure how big the problem is, but some ingredients regularly top lists of common fraud targets. "It's really hard to have a top ten, because we only know what we've caught, we don't know what we haven't caught," says John Spink, an associate director of Michigan State's Anti-Counterfeit and Product Protection Program. Here are five we definitely know about, though.Getty Images
In February, the Justice Department charged two people and five companies what appears to be biggest food fraud case in U.S. history: a complex, $180 million effort to evade import duties on Chinese honey.
The Swindle: Since 2001 Chinese honey has been subject to anti-dumping duties that make American honey more competitive. To evade those tariffs, Chinese honey flows to low-tax locales, where it is then transshipped to the U.S.
The Snare: The first clue that the Chinese were evading tariffs came from the sudden rise in imports from other countries like Malaysia. Scientists can tell where honey is from based on the pollen in it. Diluting honey and forcing it through ultrafine filters can cleanse the pollen. "The ultra filtered process is a way to remove every last bit of evidence," says Randy Verhoek, president of the American Honey Producers Association. In the U.S. that filtered honey can then be mixed with local product to mask the country of origin. Chinese producers also use different pesticides and antibiotics on their bees. Tests for those antibiotics essentially give customs officials an idea where the honey is from.
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It's time consuming and labor intensive to grow this stuff. That makes it a prime target for counterfeiters.
The Swindle: Vanilla fraud comes in two flavors: faking its country of origin and adulterating real vanilla with artificial vanilla. The primary flavoring compound used to make artificial vanilla, vanillin, is a relatively inexpensive byproduct of the chemical and paper industries. It is also the same stuff that's in real vanilla - and Madagascar vanilla is thought to contain the highest levels of vanillin. Adding synthetic vanilla to pure Madagascar vanilla solves another problem: you can't pass off synthetic vanillin as the real stuff because other flavoring compounds in real vanilla distinguishes it from its imitation variety. Political unrest, spiking global demand and tough cyclone seasons drove the price of vanilla up from the late 1990's to the first half of the aughts. Those price spikes drew sudden new entrants to the vanilla market, and new concerns of counterfeiting.
The Snare: Rainwater - all rainwater - contains incredibly small amounts of deuterium - a form of hydrogen with an extra neutron. Rain near the equator has the most deuterium, but that decreases as one gets farther and farther from the poles. Vanilla plants absorb this rainwater, and deuterium remains in the final product. Given its location, vanilla from Madagascar has a fairly unique profile. Synthetic vanilla also has a slightly different ratio of carbon isotopes to detect adulteration.
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BLACK PEPPER (AND OTHER SPICES)
Really? Black pepper? It's so cheap! Who would bother to counterfeit this?
The Swindle: Black pepper might be cheap, but sand, twigs and leaves are cheaper. Black pepper is primarily produced by small, independent farmers who might sell their crop to a middleman, who pass it on to another aggregator and so on. Chili powder can be faked with dyes and ground up bits of anything. Same goes for paprika.
The Snare: Avoid ground spices. It's harder to spot adulterants. If you must by ground spices, pick a name brand. They tend to have robust quality assurance systems to protect their image.Getty Images
There's a solid chance you've been a victim of this - it's that prevalent. Typical olive oil scams include faking its status as virgin olive oil, mislabeling its region of origin, and diluting olive oil.
The Swindle: For the most part, gone are the days when the first oil extracted from a village press was labeled extra virgin and sold at a premium. Most olive oil today is extracted with highly efficient centrifuges, according to Dan Flynn at UC Davis Olive Center. To be labeled "Extra Virgin" U.S. olive oil should match a certain chemical and taste profile. But those standards are voluntary. Still, as much as two-thirds of extra virgin olive oil doesn't meet these standards - the result of poor quality olives, a failure to keep the temperature low during oil extraction. In addition, fraudsters can dilute olive oil with just about any other type of oil - it goes through an industrial deodorization process first - to increase their profit margins.
The Snare: Selina Wang, the research director at the Olive Center, says that olives from different parts of the world have different chemical profiles. Because of this, adding five to ten percent of a non-olive oil to a batch could be hard to detect - and very profitable. Additionally, olive oil makers have developed new methods to extract oil from the pulp that's left over after the centrifuges have extracted the good stuff. Diluting extra virgin olive oil with this refined olive oil is even harder to detect.Getty Images
Milk ranks high on a list of commonly adulterated foods because a scandal in China hospitalized 50,000 babies in 2008. Other developing nations also see some phony milk scandals - in India, some fraudsters concoct a milk from vegetable fats, water and detergent powder. In reality, U.S. consumers face little risk of contaminated milk.
The Swindle: Food processors in China regularly test milk for protein content - a test that milk diluted with water will fail. But adding melamine, a white powder used in the manufacture of plastics, makes solves that problem by giving milk the appearance of a higher protein content.
The Snare: Melamine in milk wasn't really discovered until people started turning up at hospitals with kidney stones and kidney failure - six babies died. In the U.S., some pets died after eating pet food with melamine-contaminated foods. Markus Lipp, senior director of food standards at U.S. Pharmacopiea says contaminated milk highlights the intrinsic problem of food testing: scientists only find what they are looking for. "Melamine bypasses quality control. It shows up as protein." Testing for melamine is only a test for melamine, and not for the numerous other potential adulterants out there.
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