Food fraud in America: What are you really eating?

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Rhode Island Rep. Joseph McNamara is currently trying to pass legislation that would make fried squid the official state appetizer. Since Rhode Island is the squid capital of the world – hey, they have to be good at something – chances are the fried rings served there are exactly what they claim to be. Elsewhere, however, they may be serving you deep fried pig anus and calling it calamari.

In January, This American Life told a story about a multi-state pork processing company selling pig rectum – referred to, by the industry, as “bung” – as imitation calamari. Ben Calhoun did everything possible to refute the source on the story, but dozens of experts could not shoot down the possibility that people are ordering squid and getting pork bung instead. Calhoun did not find any evidence of this practice happening in the US or abroad. However, he did have a chef serve a plate of fried bung next to a plate of fried calamari.

No one could tell the difference.

That’s just one of many recent stories of food fraud that has Americans thinking twice about what’s actually on their plate. Diners are now wary of imposters passing themselves off as everything from halibut to honey.

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A recent study by Oceana found the act of seafood fraud has been uncovered both in the United States and abroad at levels ranging from 25 to more than 70 percent for commonly swapped species such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod. Oceana collected more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states to determine if they were honestly labeled. DNA testing found that one-third (33 percent) of the 1,215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

Samples sold as snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates (87 and 59 percent, respectively), with the majority of the samples identified by DNA analysis as something other than what was found on the label. Only seven of the 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were actually red snapper. The other 113 samples were another fish. Halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean sea bass were also mislabeled between 19 and 38 percent of the time, while salmon was mislabeled 7 percent of the time.

If you think you can tell – or that you’re safe when visiting a reputable sushi or seafood joint – think again.

Oceana found that 44 percent of all the retail outlets visited sold mislabeled fish. Restaurants, grocery stores and sushi venues all sold mislabeled fish and chances of being swindled varied greatly depending on where the seafood was purchased.

“Our study identified strong national trends in seafood mislabeling levels among retail types, with sushi venues ranking the highest (74 percent), followed by restaurants (38 percent) and then grocery stores (18 percent). These same trends among retail outlets were generally observed at the regional level,” Oceana said in their summary report.

So what of the mantra “what you don’t know won’t hurt you?” Well, aside from this practice being illegal and dishonest, it can actually thwart the good intentions of Americans looking to improve their health.

“As our results demonstrate, a high level of mislabeling nationwide indicates that seafood fraud harms not only the consumer’s pocket book, but also every honest vendor or fisherman along the supply chain. These fraudulent practices also carry potentially serious concerns for the health of consumers, and for the health of our oceans and vulnerable fish populations.”

While it’s despicable, it’s also easy to see how and why unscrupulous people would mislabel a cheap fish for an expensive one.

But what about honey? Or extra virgin olive oil?

These are products most of us believe we could spot as fraud. However, most of the honey sold in American chain stores does not meet international quality standards.

Testing done for Food Safety News found that most store honey isn’t honey, with ultra-filtering techniques removing pollen and hiding the honey’s origins.

“More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce. The results show that the pollen frequently has been filtered out of products labeled ‘honey,’” wrote Food Safety News.

That means these products won’t pass the quality standards set by most of the world’s food safety agencies. Without pollen, there is no way of knowing whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources. The study found that 76 percent of samples bought at grocery stores had all the pollen removed; 100 percent of honey sampled from drugstores had no pollen; and 77 percent of the honey sampled from big box stores had the pollen filtered out.

Fear not, foodies. The study found that all of the samples found at farmers markets, co-ops and whole food stores such as Trader Joe’s were the real deal. But if you can’t taste the difference – and you probably can’t – why should you care if the pollen has been removed?

“Raw honey is thought to have many medicinal properties,” Kathy Egan, dietitian at College of the Holy Cross in Mass., told Food Safety News. “Stomach ailments, anemia and allergies are just a few of the conditions that may be improved by consumption of unprocessed honey.”

Recently, a new study on food fraud was done the by U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), a scientific nonprofit organization that helps set standards for the “quality, safety and benefit” of foods and medicines. You can find their searchable online database of food fraud reports at

Their research found that olive oil, milk, saffron and coffee joined honey and fish as the most commonly fraudulent products on the market. Most of the reported food fraud comes from producers adding fillers or diluting the real deal with less expensive ingredients. Clouding agents were found in 877 food products from 315 different companies. Vegetable oil was discovered in bottles of olive oil. Grape juice was passed for pomegranate juice. Given that even the best palates can be fooled by food tech trickery, it’s difficult to completely avoid being duped.

There are some tips, however, to get what you pay for.

1. Buy the good stuff.
Squeeze your own limes instead of buying a bottle of lime juice. Grind your own spices and brew loose tea instead of packets.

2. Shop smart

Whole food items are a safer bet. They cost more, so it’s up to you to decide if that’s a deal breaker. But think about this: Most of the fraudulent food listed in this article do not feature healing benefits. If you’re buying a fake, you’re saving cash but hurting your body. Join a co-op, a CSA or shop carefully at your local whole food grocery store.

3. Forget about white tuna

As mentioned above, escolar is typically passed off as white tuna. Escolar is edible, but it contains gempylotoxin, a substance humans can’t digest. You know how the rest of that story goes.

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