Food Fraud Database Lets Us All Play Detective

By March 27, 2013Health, NPR News
Bags of spices

Spices are common targets for food fraudsters. iStockphoto.com

By now we know that not every food is what it seems.

Beef might be horse meat, and tuna might be much cheaper escolar. Extra virgin olive oil is often nothing of the kind.

But if you really want to get paranoid, peek into the USP Food Fraud Database. It’s a searchable trove of humankind’s ceaseless efforts to swindle, hoodwink and defraud with food, worldwide.

That’s where I learned that hucksters sometimes use Sudan red dye to amp up paprika, which in its natural state is often a demure reddish brown. Sudan red is a potent carcinogen, banned for use in food worldwide. Eek!

Spices, milk and vegetable oils are the most common fraudulent foodstuffs, according to Markus Lipp, senior director of food standards for US Pharmacopeia. “If I go to India, I may find there is completely fake milk on the market,” Lipp told The Salt. “Milk that never saw a cow.”

The nonprofit organization makes its living by establishing industry standards for pharmaceuticals and foods. The food fraud database first launched in 2010, but a big upgrade in January added reports from scholarly journals and the media in 2011 and 2012. The list now includes about 2,000 foods. The goal is to be useful to regulators and purchasers, but since the database is free, we civilians can snoop around in it, too.

Price is clearly a driver of deception. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and efforts to fake it date back to the ancient Greeks. The USP database lists 109 phony saffron substitutes, including marigold flowers, corn silk, gypsum, chalk and strands of cotton or plastic thread.

To a lay person, the cost savings involved in some of these food scams seem hardly worth the effort. Or maybe it’s just that the margins in the food industry can be so razor-thin that even a tiny profit margin is enough to encourage fakery.

Take clouding agents, for example. They’re used to give juices, jams and sports drinks an appealing cloudy appearance. Palm oil, which is cheap and food safe, is frequently used. But the database details problems with palm oil being replaced by phthalates in Taiwan. Those are chemicals used in plastic manufacturing — they’re not meant for human consumption — and there’s concern that they could interfere with human hormones.

That kind of substitution may not be a concern in the United States. But we do have to deal with “maple” syrup that has no relationship to a tree, and watered-down lemon juice. Juices including apple and pomegranate are particularly vulnerable to fraud, Lipp says, and can be faked entirely with water, sugar and citric acid.

Food fraud sleuths can report incidents to the database.

“Everyone in the supply chain needs to work together and share information and maintain vigilance,” Lipp says. “We cannot relinquish the safety of our food to adulterers.”

 

See Original Story

Food Fraud Database Lets Us All Play Detective

Recent headlines

  • Regulators to hold hearing in Juneau over garbage contract transfer

    Juneau residents will have a rare opportunity this week to sound off over trash service. The company that runs curbside pick up has been acquired by Waste Connections, a Canada-based business with customers in 39 states and five provinces.
  • A few of the couple thousand walrus hauled out at Cape Grieg north of Ugashik Bay in June 2016. Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say the walrus are back this year, but have not said yet how many. (Photo by KDLG)

    Cape Greig walrus are back; Fish and Game plans change fishery boundary again

    The Department of Fish and Game will pull the north line of the Ugashik District back away from the haulout site again, Salomone said, the same as last year. The exact coordinates will be published with the first announcement from Fish and Game about June 1.
  • Navy to scan Kodiak waters for WWII explosives

    The Navy will scan Kodiak and Unalaska waters for World War II-era munitions using underwater drones next month, as part of an ongoing effort to eventually remove the explosives. What could happen and whether the historic weapons would detonate is unclear.
  • A blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, engulfs krill off the coast of California. (Photo courtesy Silverback Films/BBC/Proceedings of the Royal Society B)

    How the biggest animal on Earth got so big

    Whales might be the largest animals on the planet, but they haven't always been so huge. Researchers say the ocean giants only became enormous fairly recently, and over a short period of time.
X