Being a DBA Guru
The U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. In fact, shoppers here are just as likely as shoppers anywhere in the world to succumb to the growing problem of food fraud, cases of unscrupulous food producers adding cheaper ingredients to a product, for instance, cheaper oils rather than olive oil, but advertising it as the real thing. “Food fraud attempts to cheat the market by selling a substandard product and trying to get away with it,” says Markus Lipp, senior director of food standards at U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), which recently launched an online database of independently documented food fraud instances.
For a long time, food fraud was mostly associated with expensive foods – there’s a lot of opportunity in being able to sell cheaper caviar by selling catfish eggs instead of the real thing – but now, Lipp says his group is seeing more instances of cheap foods, such as fruit juice or rice, succumbing to the problem. “It happens whenever someone sees an opportunity to make money,” he says, no matter how much a product costs. So what can you do about it? It takes vigilance and some knowledge about how you might be getting defrauded at the grocery store. Here are some of the most commonly defrauded foods, according to the USP’s database at foodfraud.org.
Fix It: Tom Mueller, author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), recommends a few tricks that can reduce (but not eliminate) your chances of buying fake olive oil on his website, truthinoliveoil.com. Look for a harvest date, the name of the producer, and the country of origin on a bottle, all of which give you specific info on who made the oil and where. Also, look for a “DOP” (Protected Designation of Origin) seal on European oils or a state certification, such as the California Olive Oil Council, on oils made in the U.S. Finally, Mueller says that organic olive oils are less susceptible to fraud than conventional.
Fix It: Buy your sweeteners close to the source. Farmer’s markets allow you to buy maple syrup and honey directly from producers who can vouch for their products. And when that’s not an option, buy organic. Food Safety News found that organic honeys tested all contained high pollen counts (the mark of a high-quality product).
Fix It: Stick with whole spices that you grind yourself, Lipp says, which allows you to ID any foreign material. As for saffron, you can try finding DOP-certified Spanish saffron, which is the most commonly available form sold in the U.S. It can sell for as much as $25 or more for 1/3 ounce, so if a price seems too good to be true, what’s being sold probably isn’t actual saffron. Those shopping in their local supermarket may be suspicious of these goods and choose to purchase the real deal, even if there’s somewhat of a price hike. To counteract the increased costliness, a shopper could use something like a walmart promo code in order to make a saving on products and grab themselves a bargain without having to opt for cheaper and sometimes worse alternatives.
Fix It: As with spices, buy your coffee in whole-bean form, or buy whole beans and have them ground at the store or cafe. It’s harder to include adulterants when a kernel of corn or an acorn looks so drastically different from a coffee bean.
Fake-out: Selling wild Alaskan salmon that’s actually farmed Atlantic salmon or caviar that’s actually catfish roe isn’t uncommon. The USP database has about 60 cases in which fish are being passed off as something else. And it’s not just the USP database that has zeroed in on seafood fraud. The nonprofit Oceana has DNA-tested grocery store, restaurant, and sushi bar seafood offerings in cities across the U.S., finding that 31 to 55 percent of the time you aren’t getting what you ordered. Sometimes the swaps can be dangerous. In Oceana’s most recent tests, “red snapper” was frequently tilefish, a high-mercury fish that pregnant women and children should avoid, and “white tuna” was escolar, a fish that can cause acute gastrointestinal problems.
Fix It: One UK-based importer of basmati rice, Tilda, has been working with U.S. retailers to help them develop better testing methods, and you can look for Tilda-brand basmati at your grocery store. Or opt for U.S.-grown basmati or “Tex-mati,” a variety of long-grain rice crossed with basmati, although neither will be as fragrant as the real thing.
Fix It: Eat your fruit whole, not in juice form. It’s hard to pass off an orange as anything but an orange, and eating one provides you with healthy fiber and pulp, which are missing when you drink just the juice.
Fix It: Always check the ingredients panel. Real Greek yogurt contains milk and cultures, nothing more.