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Increase in imports, competition fuels rise in ‘food fraud’

Some products are being labeled as costlier items

By Lyndsey Layton
Washingon Post / April 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON — 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, Va., 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. Victims range from the shopper at the local supermarket to multimillion companies, including E&J Gallo and Heinz USA.

Such deception has been happening since Roman times, but it is getting new attention as more products are imported and a tight economy heightens competition. And the US food industry says federal regulators are not doing enough to combat it.

“It’s growing very rapidly, and there’s more of it than you might think,’’ said James Morehouse, a senior partner at A.T. Kearney Inc., which is studying the issue for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the food and beverage industry.

John Spink, a Michigan State University specialist on food and packaging fraud, estimates that 5 percent to 7 percent of the US food supply is affected but said the number could be greater. “We know what we seized at the border, but we have no idea what we didn’t seize,’’ he said.

The job of ensuring that food is accurately labeled largely rests with the Food and Drug Administration. But it has been overwhelmed in trying to prevent food contamination, and combating fraud has remained on a back burner.

The recent development of high-tech tools — including DNA testing — has made it easier to detect fraud that might have gone unnoticed a decade ago. DNA can be extracted from cells of fish and meat and from other foods, such as rice and even coffee.

Technicians then identify the species by comparing the DNA with a database of samples.

Another tool, isotope ratio analysis, can determine subtle differences between food — whether a fish was farmed or wild, for example, or whether caviar came from Finland or a US stream.

The techniques have become so accessible that two New York City high school students, working with scientists at the Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History last year, discovered that 11 of 66 foods — including the sheep’s milk cheese and caviar — bought randomly at markets in Manhattan were mislabeled.

The students analyzed the food’s DNA in reaching their conclusions.

“We put so much emphasis on food and purity of ingredients and where they come from,’’ said Mark Stoeckle, a physician and DNA specialist at Rockefeller University who advised the students. “But then there are things selling that are not what they say on the label. There’s an important issue here in terms of economics and consumer safety.’’

It is not clear how many food manufacturers, importers, and retailers are testing products, but large companies with valuable brands to protect have been increasingly using the new technology, said Vincent Paez, director of food safety business development at Thermo Fisher Scientific, which sells some of the equipment and performs laboratory analysis, including DNA testing.