A customer reads a label and trusts that what the product says it contains is accurate. The consumer trusts that their local grocer stocks products accurately labeled and described. The problem is, adulteration of food is insidious. Misbranded and adulterated foods are offered to stores at a cheaper price. This is called “economically motivated adulteration”(EMA). Adulteration of food may become a public issue when adulterated foods make consumers sick or more serious health concerns arise. Adulteration also occurs when a product contains different ingredients and additives that are not mentioned on the product’s labeling.
While the FDA is working to regulate the misbranding of food according to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it comes down to manpower versus the sheer volume of products and food inspectors confront. Statistical-based sampling and analysis must be used, and that is not going to always catch every product at the gate. While the prosecution of the perpetrators of adulterated food gives the public a message of regulatory confidence, shoppers should continue to be discerning of where they shop and what brands they purchase.
On the Food Fraud Database, you can enter any kind of food and find ingredient replacements or additives that have adulterated a product. Olive oil, milk, coffee and honey are on the rise for adulteration. A royal jelly is produced from non-authentic saccharide sources; a quince jelly is cut with apple or pear puree; a honey contains sugar syrups; rice is replaced with fake rice made from plastic resin and potato starch; instant coffee replaced with cereals, roasted corn, roasted barley, roasted soybeans, chicory powder, rye flour, potato flour, burned sugar, caramel, figs, roasted date seeds, glucose, maltodextrins, starch and roasted ground parchment. Saffron is cut with amaranth, azorubine, allura red or sunset yellow. How about ice cream with washing powder?
These adulterations are not easily detected. Complex scientific processes are used in the studies that reveal them, such as saccharides fingerprinting and phenolics (authentic and adulterant markers) fingerprinting. A ScienceDirect report on food forensics points out the challenges in “developing authenticity methods” to detect adulteration in food stuffs and that the most successful techniques have been: stable isotope analysis (carbon isotope ratios can identify corn and cane sugars added unlabeled to foods and drinks); Genomic fingerprinting (authentication of fruit in yogurt); and proteomics (protein profiling).
The FDA’s Food Safety Enforcement Facts explains that action starts with a warning letter from the FDA to individuals that have violated the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). There is the expectation that most individuals will voluntarily comply with the law. The next step is a recall. The 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act authorizes the FDA to order a recall when there is not voluntary removal of a product. Restraining orders or injunctions can follow on the civil level, and seizure is a federal district court action. Administrative detention is an interim final rule issued in May of 2011 under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act allowing the FDA to keep suspect foods out of the marketplace for up to 30 days. This is key to the regulation of adulterated food as it is used when the FDA has reason to believe the articles of food are adulterated (e.g. contain impure or unsafe ingredients) or misbranded (e.g. bear false or misleading information in their labeling.)
FDA’s policy of false or misleading labeling of food applies equally to imported and domestic products.
Patricia El-Hinnawy, Spokesperson, Office of Criminal Investigations, US Federal Food and Drug Administration, affirms that, “Food safety is taken very seriously by all components of FDA, including OCI. FDA relies on the media to bring news to consumers about possible risks in the food supply. OCI also asks for consumers’ help in exposing possible crimes related to foods or any other FDA-regulated product.” Q&A with Patricia El-Hinnawy, Spokesperson, Office of Criminal Investigations at US Food and Drug Administration
Awareness by the general public is key to the types of foods most likely in this country to be adulterated. The Huffington Post reports an article originally appearing in Smart Money.com, stating the “8 Hoaxes to Look Out for in the Grocery Store” as: Fish, Alcohol, Spices, Baby formula, Fruit Juice, Milk and Olive Oil. Truffle oil, lemon juice and pomegranate juice should also be added to that list. The National Consumers League offers tips to savvy consumers to avoid food fraud. Keep an eye on price as a key indicator...there may be a reason a particular brand costs less, and that could be adulteration. Pick brands with a vested interest in keeping you as a consumer, and keep abreast of what the FDA is doing to handle the food fraud issue.
When a company removes authentic ingredients to produce a product that gives them a more profitable bottom line, according to a food fraud article issued by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, “This type of activity destroys consumer confidence and security in the foods they purchase.” Well known brands and chains have more to lose should they be busted for selling counterfeit food or brands that do not represent their entire ingredients on their labels. As shoppers rely upon their supermarket to be selling products that are authentic, rigorous transparency by food chains on offenders could result in strong loyalty from customers. Adulteration can also involve colors. Proactive chains can work with the FDA and their trade associations to review FDA warning letters that are relevant to the products they carry.