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The problem of food fraud


That Chesapeake blue crab you were served the other night may not, in fact, have been Chesapeake blue crab:

The expensive "sheep's milk" cheese in a Manhattan market was really made from cow's milk. And a jar of "Sturgeon caviar" was, in fact, Mississippi paddlefish.

Some honey makers dilute their honey with sugar beets or corn syrup, their competitors say, but still market it as 100 percent pure at a premium price.

And last year, a Fairfax man was convicted of selling 10 million pounds of cheap, frozen catfish fillets from Vietnam as much more expensive grouper, red snapper and flounder. The fish was bought by national chain retailers, wholesalers and food service companies, and ended up on dinner plates across the country.

"Food fraud" has been documented in fruit juice, olive oil, spices, vinegar, wine, spirits and maple syrup, and appears to pose a significant problem in the seafood industry.

Obviously, this is bad, and it should be stopped, if only because the market for higher-end goods will collapse if people can't trust them. But here's a question: Were many of these customers worse off because of the fraud, either in the pleasure they derived from the products or other benefits (health, for instance) they were expecting?

Photo credit: Molly Riley/Reuters.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 31, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Quite possibly. And if they were studiously checking their Seafood Watch apps for sustainable, local seafood (for example), they were paying for services that simply weren't being carried out. That they were personally none the wiser is beside the point.

Posted by: TheodoreLittleton | March 31, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

There is one big concern we have in my household when labelling can't be trusted. Allergies. My wife has many food allergies. We count a lot on the labelling on these high end and organic products because they are supposedly made with what is on the label and minus things you find in "lower end" products. A lot of the preservatives and additives used in materials is dangerous to people with allergies.

Hidden corn syrup not listed on a label is dangerous to someone like my wife who is allergic to corn. So we trust the labels when they say 100% pure. May I always taste the difference - no. But are there times where my wife has an allergic reaction and we can't figure out why because everything we ate in a meal was on the "safe" list - yes. Do you like to go to the hospital when you've done everything right and purchased what you thought were specific types of food and the food almost kills you?

So when this food fraud kills someone ask were "these customers worse off because of the fraud, either in the pleasure they derived from the products or other benefits?" I'm going to go with yes.

Sorry, a little harsh but the lack of standards and controls on food labelling is something I have to worry about every day.

Posted by: zattarra | March 31, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

A few months ago there was a great piece of "detective work" published in the open-access science journal PLoS ONE. Several scientists collected pieces of tuna sushi from sushi restaurants and subjected them to DNA analysis. They found some serious problems: servers saying that the tuna was bluefin when it was actually cheaper bigeye tuna; the menu saying "tuna", the server saying it was bigeye, but it was actually the endangered bluefin; "white tuna" not being tuna at all, but instead being escolar, a fish that is illegal for sale in several countries because it can cause severe digestive problems. In all of these examples, the consumer has been harmed, either from raised expectations, by inadvertently helping to drive bluefin to extinction, or potential digestive discomfort ("mild and rapid passage of oily yellow or orange droplets, to severe diarrhea with nausea and vomiting" from eating escolar).

The Ethicurean had a post about the article with many more details and links:

Posted by: meander510 | March 31, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I may not notice if the tomato paste is a "bit moldy or watered-down" in the heat of making sauce, but really, I'd rather it wasn't. Harm that is not immediately manifest is still harm.

From Slate:

Posted by: eb53 | March 31, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I'm lactose intolerant and I get pretty sick from a surprisingly a small amount of cow's milk, cream, or cheese. Event lactaid milk disagrees with me.

I seem to do better with goat's milk cheese like feta. I hope that food fraud doesn't mess with feta. I guess I'll be the first to know. :-P

Posted by: billkarwin | March 31, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

I am alergic to cow's milk and I love cheese! So yeah, the imposter could cause me harm.

The other thing is I frequently can't locate country of origin labeling anymore. Did that go away? I know it's silly but I would prefer my garlic not come all the way from China. I would prefer to buy CA garlic. I don't know if that's cool or not, but I want the option.

Posted by: luko | March 31, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

The customers may have been worse off health-wise (eating a particular fish for a particular nutriet, say), and they are absolutely worse off in that they overpaid for what they received.

Posted by: justin84 | March 31, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

One solution is to buy from really trustworthy merchants, assuming there are some in your area. Also to buy as little processed food as possible.

The allergy issue is obviusly real for some people. Otherwise, the fish thing is the most worrisome because (1) fish isn't tested; (2) many fish are from unsustainable fisheries; (3) some fish are known to have unacceptable levels of mercury and other pollutants and (4) there is a huge difference in taste between, say, crab and fake crab. But there is also a difference in looks.

As long as 30+ years ago I heard that many scallops sold in restaurants were really cut with cookie cutters from shark meat. Again, if you know what the real things look and taste like, you could probably tell the difference, unless it was overprepared or oversauced.

But it may be like wine, where most people really can't tell the differnce between a good $15 or $20 bottle and something $50 and up.

Posted by: Mimikatz | March 31, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

The generic labelling system introduced inside EU tries to ensure that product qlty includes country of origin and ingredients used in preparing the final product. I know glty of blue crab and can also identify it by taste.
Similar crabs are available in Washington state but with dissimilar taste.

Bottom line must be product glty label and country origin.

Posted by: hariknaidu | March 31, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

They were put in significant risk. They're putting this product in their bodies, after all. What if they had food allergies? You can't manage your allergies if you don't know what you're eating.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | March 31, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

An excellent point justin84. Food allergies are certainly more of a grave risk, but merely paying more than they should've is injury enough. One wonders why Ezra asked the question at all.

Methinks someone is being a snob about food snobs. :P

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | March 31, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Here in Minnesota the problem is with fake walleye. The immoral and/or unwitting have been known to substitute another fine, light, flaky fish - sauger, perhaps - for walleye. Of course, one's the fish has been filleted, it takes a geneticist to determine whether its sauger or walleye....

Posted by: bsimon1 | March 31, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

mimikatz wrote
"As long as 30+ years ago I heard that many scallops sold in restaurants were really cut with cookie cutters from shark meat."

I have heard the same thing, except from skate wings, not shark.

Posted by: bsimon1 | March 31, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Well if you have an allergy to beets and the honey has beet juice in it then I'd say you are probably worse off.

Posted by: vintagejulie | March 31, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Ummm, pretty odd question, Ezra. For example, my friends were really sad when their dog died from melamine in the dog food. And how many babies died?

You are seeing the issue from the POV of a Whole Foods Market shopper. This issue is far more fundamental. This is criminal fraud we are talking about. I don't have much sympathy for deluded caviar eaters, but the issue is about whether we can trust our food. It's 1930 all over again.

Posted by: Dollared | March 31, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

What this really is about is Ezra dislike of anyone associated with a privileged lifestyle. You can sense the hatred in his post. His anti-elitist comments are really getting annoying and affecting his work.

Posted by: Natstural | March 31, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

"The generic labelling system introduced inside EU tries to ensure that product qlty includes country of origin and ingredients used in preparing the final product."

True, and its heart is in the right place, but the country of origin labelling in particular has been massively gamed by agribusiness by shipping animals around Europe.

Posted by: GingerYellow | March 31, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Seriously? Hey Ezra, how much money can I steal from you every day before you're worse off?

Posted by: Brian5 | March 31, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Sir Humphrey: "Minister, you said you wanted the administration figures reduced, didn't you?"
Jim Hacker: "Yes."
Sir Humphrey: "So we reduced the figures."
Jim Hacker: "But only the figures, not the number of administrators."
Sir Humphrey: "Well of course not."
Jim Hacker: "Well that is not what I meant."
Sir Humphrey: "Well really Minister, one is not a mind-reader, is one? You said reduce the figures, so we reduced the figures."

Posted by: roublen | March 31, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

As owners of a small retail seafood company in the Chicago area, we get most of our fish whole and fillet it ourselves, so we know what the fish is, and we only deal with reputable suppliers that we've know sometimes for many decades. The best defense against getting a lesser quality fish for a high quality price is to know your fish monger. By the way, we do not sell bluefin tuna, haven't for years, nor beluga caviar, because they are so endangered. The price of bluefin is astronomical, so I seriously doubt that any restaurant or retailer would serve it and call it something else.

Posted by: nbburfish | March 31, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

The real damage here are the accusations of fraud without real knowledge of the act by the author. There have been accusations of cutting honey with sugar syrup or corn syrup in the past, but not by beekeepers, but by foreign honey exporters. But diluting honey with sugar beets? Get your botany right before accusing poeple of some kind of crime. And are competitors the best source of reliable information? Before defaming an industry, please, get all the facts.

Posted by: kim21 | March 31, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse


Contact your nearest representative and/or poly/sci B.A. holder.

Posted by: msoja | March 31, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

And really, what about that fake crab stuff? It's been decades, and nothing's been done!

Posted by: msoja | March 31, 2010 11:53 PM | Report abuse

Well, on all of those examples I hope I would actually know the difference (except the caviar, because I hate that).

Posted by: albamus | April 1, 2010 2:53 AM | Report abuse

The New Yorker had an article a ways back about how Italian olive oil would be adulterated. Importers would mix in other oils, such as hazelnut, which are chemically similar. One problem is that in addition to being ripped off, you're not getting the health benefits you paid for.

Posted by: GrandArch | April 1, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

For those of you that are lactose intolerant, you may want to try goat milk in its low fat or regular form, It is widely available in most grocery and health food stores and is delicious. You can research it on the internet.

Posted by: harryshrago | April 2, 2010 3:18 AM | Report abuse

For those of you that are lactose intolerant, you may want to try goat milk in its low fat or regular form, It is widely available in most grocery and health food stores and is delicious. You can research it on the internet.

Posted by: harryshrago | April 2, 2010 4:35 AM | Report abuse

This is horrible and incredibly dangerous! As the mom of a food allergic child,I cannot believe that this actually happens. It is not only fraud but it could potentially be dangerous for a person who has allergies! It is terrible. Our son used to have such bad food issues that he could only eat chicken, peas and rice. Fortunately, after taking his Belly Boost probiotics, he can now eat lots more foods without it causing Eczema. But, we do still have to avoid a handful of serious food allergies and we even carry an Epipen. I just can't believe how dangerous this is.

Posted by: smilinggreenmom | April 2, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

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