That expensive tuna or other high-end fish on your plate may not be what the menu says is it. New research indicates cases of “food fraud” — the deliberate substitution or misrepresentation of food products for economic gain — are on the rise and now include more than 2,100 categories, from fish to spices.
The study, published in the Journal of Food Science, is based on a new analysis of the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention's Food Fraud Database that found nearly 800 new records of "food fraud" — representing new information about foods that are vulnerable to fraudulent manipulation — in the past two years.
Initial analyses of the database by USP food scientists compiled 1,300 records of food fraud published between 1980 and 2010. The latest update increases the total number of records by 60 percent, based on new information published in 2011 and 2012 in scholarly journals and general media.
This research shows fish, seafood, milk, vegetable oils, spices, and lemon juice were among the top categories where food fraud was documented in published reports.
"While food fraud has been around for centuries, with a handful of notorious cases well documented, we suspect that what we know about the topic is just the tip of the iceberg," said Jeffrey Moore, M.D., the database's creator and lead analyst. "Ultimately, we hope the database can be used as a tool by food manufacturers, regulators, scientists, and others worldwide to help achieve a safer food supply.”
Dr. Moore said researchers hope the analysis will provide more complete knowledge of “known and potential threats [to public health], spurring new research and development of more accurate detection methods for potential adulterants” and increase consumer awareness of food fraud.
The USP is a nonprofit, scientific organization that publishes the Food Chemicals Codex, a set of standards for the identity, quality, and purity of food ingredients used worldwide. According to the USP, food fraud is the "deliberate substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging." It also refers to false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.
The new study found the top ingredients involved in food fraud reports include olive oil (and other cooking oils), milk, saffron, turmeric, chili powder, lemon juice, maple syrup, honey, coffee, tea, fish, black pepper, and clouding agents (used in fruit juices and beverages to improve their visual appearance).
Among the study’s findings and examples:
• Milk, vegetable oils, spices: Many cases have been reported of watered-down and altered fluid and powdered milk, olive oil replaced with less-expensive vegetable oils, and the dilution or replacement of spices with less-expensive spices or fillers.
• Seafood: With $80 billion in seafood sold in the U.S. each year — 80 percent of it imported — fish fraud is “a significant problem.” Examples include the sale of the fish escolar, often fraudulently mislabeled as white tuna or butterfish. Escolar is banned in Italy and Japan for its high content of waxy esters and its potential to cause a particular type of fish food poisoning. Puffer fish, which can also cause poisoning, has been sold in the U.S. as monkfish to get around import and other restrictions.
• Clouding Agents: Numerous reports have documented phthalates being fraudulently added as clouding agents in place of more expensive palm oil or other food ingredients in fruit juices, jams, and other products.
Researchers identified 877 food products from 315 companies where such substitutions have occurred.
For more information, or to search the free USP database, go to or .
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