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Food Fraud: What Are You Really Buying at the Supermarket?

5 items that often aren't what they appear, and how to avoid fakes

By Maureen Callahan

No matter how discerning your palate, chances are you’ve been fooled a time or two when shopping for food at the supermarket. And unlike the counterfeit wallet or handbag bought on the streets of New York City, this bit of fakery is under the radar.

It could have been those pricey heirloom tomatoes or that bottle of imported extra virgin olive oil. Someone, somewhere along the supply chain pulled a switcheroo. The heirlooms were really garden variety tomatoes. The extra virgin olive oil was cut with hazelnut oil or a blend of lesser quality olive oils rather than a first pressing of Mediterranean olives.

You want to think you’d be able to tell the difference. But “the perpetrators aren’t designing these changes to be detected,” says Karen Everstine, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI) and the group's resident food fraud expert. “And presumably, most of the time, they aren’t.”

Welcome to the high stakes world of food fraud, mislabeled ingredients and questionable food-selling practices. Big cases like the horse meat scandal in France or melamine in baby formula make headlines. Yet, even the average consumer can be duped by small switches in common items. Here’s a look at five everyday food categories that fall prey to tampering, followed by some specific advice on how to shop smarter:

1. Honey

One of the most routinely tampered-with food products, many suppliers remove pollen from honey after it’s harvested in what they say is an effort to improve clarity and prevent crystallization. But “that’s like erasing fingerprints,” explains Vaughn Bryant, a melissopalyynologist (a scientist who studies the pollen in honey to determine that pollen’s source) in the department of anthropology at Texas A & M University. Pollen is the blueprint that confirms not just the geographical region where a honey is produced, but the types of flowers a bee uses to make its honey.

“I was given four samples of honey recently,” says Bryant. “Three were supposed to be Texas wild honey and one was a $40 bottle of manuka honey from New Zealand, Analyzing the honey, only one was from Texas. The manuka was not manuka.” That is, three of the four products were mislabeled.

An even bigger problem, says Bryant, is that these unidentified bottles of honey could be imports contaminated with antibiotics and pesticides that make their way into this country from dubious sources, sources that have also been also known to cut that honey with cheaper sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup.

2. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

When you get right down to it, olives are fruits that are squeezed to produce a “juice” or olive oil. And that first pressing or squeezing is considered the highest quality juice. So high in quality that it commands a high price tag, a lot higher than many products you see on store shelves.

“Based on our studies, the average shopper is likely to find substandard ‘extra virgin olive oil’ in the supermarket,” says Dan Flynn, executive director of the Olive Center at U.C. Davis, a self-funded, university-industry coalition whose mission is to provide free and independent information to growers, processors, professional buyers and consumers.

"The oils we tested were often stale, rancid and had other off-flavors,” he said. According to the U.S. Pharmacopeia, these extra virgin olive oils can also be cut with hazelnut oil or lesser grade (not first pressing/squeezing) olive oils. The practice is so rampant that one reporter, Tom Mueller, has written a whole book on the subject, titled Extra Virginity. Among his many tips: “Know the when, who, where of your oil: When it was made (harvest date), who made it (specific producer name) and exactly where on the planet they made it.”

The Olive Center’s Flynn agrees. In fact, California recently adopted stricter standards for extra virgin olive oils, making it a good bet that buying stateside could offer more assurance that your oil is truly extra virgin. Once you get that EVOO home, the Olive Center offers these tips for keeping it fresh.

3. Seafood

Farm-raised salmon is sometimes being passed off as higher priced wild-caught salmon. Maryland Crab Cakes, sold right in the region where that crab is fished, are being made with crab species from Indonesia. And according to the nonprofit ocean advocacy group Oceana, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

In Oceana's biggest study back in 2013 (which analyzed 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states ), DNA testing confirmed that one-third of seafood samples in this country were mislabeled. Tilefish (which the Food and Drug Administration says women and young children should avoid due to its high mercury content) was being sold as halibut or red snapper. King mackerel (another high-mercury fish) was sold as grouper. And of 120 samples of red snapper sold across the country, only seven were actually red snapper.

A complex global supply chain that is cloaked in mystery is part of the problem. So is the way we buy fish. “If you have a fillet of white fish and the scales and the head are gone, unless you do DNA testing you’re not going to know exactly which species of white fish you’ve bought,” says food fraud expert Everstine.

4. Spices

At close to $10,000 per pound, saffron — the pungent red threads (hand-harvested stigmas from a purple crocus plant) used to flavor Spanish paellas — can be made with everything from corn silk fibers colored with red dye to chalk (yes, chalk!) to marigold blossoms. Usually, it’s the ground version of saffron that is counterfeited.

“If you’re buying whole spices, you can identify them,” says Everstine. “If you’re buying ground spices, it’s hard to detect any additions or changes.”


In fact, ground spices can be easily mixed with other ingredients that bulk up volume and cut cost. And it’s not just high cost spices that can be manipulated. Late last year the government announced a problem with ground cumin contaminated with peanut protein. Was this an accident or was it food fraud? That hasn’t been determined. But follow the cumin trail and it winds around and twists and turns as this one contaminated ingredient works its way through food channels, creating a wave of recalls, including different brands of ground cumin, Creole seasonings, bottled Indian sauces, packaged salsas, croutons, mini souffles and black bean soup.

“I have a daughter with a peanut allergy and the adulteration of cumin with peanut that happened recently is a problem,” says Everstine. Bottom line: both food companies and consumers end up harmed when a product is not what the label specifies.

5. High-Value Foods

Cage-free eggs. Upscale wines. Ground coffees. Vanilla extract. Nutrient-rich “superfoods” of the moment (pomegranate juice, for example). Organic anything. Certain products like these that are in high demand and short supply often command a premium price tag. At the same time, higher price points make them ripe for manipulating, particularly when changes to the products can be made that are too subtle to detect.

“With a global supply chain, you have ingredients that can go through six or seven intermediary parties,” explains Everstine. It’s a complex system that keeps both government regulators and food companies on their toes trying to ferret out problems.

5 Tips for Supermarket Shoppers

That means it doesn’t hurt for shoppers to employ caution and use these smart buying strategies:

Purchase foods from reputable sources, brands or markets you know and trust. It’s worth it for big food companies and grocery stores to protect their brands and good name.

Purchase from short, visible supply chains, if possible. Buying local or from somewhere nearby shortens the supply chain (fewer middlemen means fewer points in the channel for fraud) and gives you the chance to ask questions about how a food is produced.

When practical, buy foods in their whole (less processed) form and process them at home. Whole apples or oranges versus fruit juice. Whole fish versus fish cakes. Whole spices versus ground.

Be wary of rock-bottom “too-good-to-be-true” prices. This is particularly important on high-value foods like extra virgin olive oil, seafood, honey and anything organic. Specialty products have higher price tags for a reason, one that involves quality and higher production standards.

Read labels carefully. Sometimes it can seem like “fraud” but the product actually meets government guidelines if you read the fine print. For example, an olive oil that lists Italy on the front label may say on the back label (in teeny tiny print) that it contains olive oils from other countries.


Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner. Read More
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