Friday, May 17, 2013

Farm Fakes: A History of Fraudulent Food. By Shoshana Walter

Throughout time, humans have been purposefully mislabeling, marketing and adulterating food. But thanks to a global economy, one food fake can reach millions of people; are we doing enough to stop it?

(Modern Farmer) Early Saturday morning, Jimmy and Junior parked their rickety pickup truck behind a table in the center of the Richmond, Indiana’s local farmer’s market, where Lucy Goodman and her husband, owners of a CSA farm, liked to sell their organic produce.

Jimmy and Junior were “already tanked,” Goodman recalled. After unloading boxes of produce onto a folding table, Jimmy perched a fedora over his head and sprawled onto a chair for a nap. Junior, a ruddy-nosed man with a lisp, dealt with the customers. He advertised their “local” offerings: oranges, bananas and pineapples.

Except, of course, they weren’t. “That’s a bunch of – excuse my French – b......t,” Goodman said. “That stuff doesn’t grow around here. It’s cold and there’s a lot of snow outside. There’s no way he could be growing tropical stuff.” 

Junior and Jimmy’s pathetic attempt at a food scam is part of a long and storied tradition: as long as profit could be made, there has been someone willing to masquerade their product as something better, fresher and safer than it really is, cutting corners with cheaper ingredients or replacing it with something else entirely.

Fake food has plagued mankind for centuries; next to prostitution, historians consider counterfeiting the world’s second oldest profession. But food fakery these days is vastly more complex, and much harder to trace than in the past. Like our food system, food fakes span the globe. In today’s market, wheat gluten adulterated with melamine finds its way from China into “all natural” pet food in the United States, killing thousands of cats and dogs. A man sells synthetic fake organic fertilizer to the country’s largest organic farm, leaving many consumers wondering if their organic spinach is true to its “certified organic” label. A red snapper at a suburban New York Whole Foods, scientists discover, is actually a much smaller, poorer fish.

“Fish is moved out of the water anywhere in the world, and it can be in a retail store in the United States within 48 hours,” said John Spink, associate director of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program at Michigan State University. “There’s probably no more fraud per capita or per person today than there was in ancient Roman times. There’s just more people now. And it’s multiplied because of globalization and manufacturing.”


Little Girl was a tabby cat with a sweet disposition. But she died an early, painful death when, in 2007, Judith Quintana fed her “venison and green peas” cat food.

Little Girl’s kidneys failed after eating the brand, one of 180 pet food lines tainted with melamine, a chemical used to make plastic lawn chairs. Dozens of pet food companies such as Iams and Purina and major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Petco issued recalls. In the end, they resolved a class action lawsuit with a $24 million settlement.

How the chemical, not approved for food use in the United States, ended up in hundreds of pet food lines reveals a lot about our current food system.


Food manufacturers now source ingredients from China and dozens of others countries throughout the world to create products that are made, packaged or sold in the United States.

“Americans have been asking for cheap food for a long time. Very accessible, cheap food,” said Chris Gardner, founder of Stanford University’s food summit. “And that’s what we’ve been delivering at the price of quality. We’ve all become very disconnected with what’s involved in making food.”

Today, the Bureau of Chemistry no longer exists. Now more than 16 federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, oversee more than 30 major food laws. After salmonella and E. coli outbreaks, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, dramatically expanding the FDA’s power to regulate food production in part by outsourcing foreign inspections to other governments.

Yet the power of the FDA is far eclipsed by the global enormity of our food supply. The FDA oversees 80 percent of our food, but as recently as 2011, was only able to inspect 11 percent of U.S. facilities and 2.3 percent of food imports. Though foreign food manufacturers far outnumber U.S. facilities, the FDA in 2011 only inspected 995, or 0.4 percent, of them.

The United States has attempted to block some hazardous products from entering the country, but food exporters have found crafty ways around it. After the U.S. imposed a hefty tariff on Chinese honey due to the presence of antibiotics, Chinese manufacturers routed the product to other countries. Soon U.S. consumers began seeing honey from Argentina and India, instead.

Researchers contend that food fakery is not necessarily more common now, but the repercussions are certainly more far-reaching. Many of the most notorious food scandals have come from China, where news reports have detailed scores of domestic food issues, including tofu fermented with sewer water, gutter oil re-sold as vegetable oil, arsenic in soy sauce, bleach in mushrooms and metal cadmium in rice. Nothing seems to be sacred when it comes to food fakes: a recurring problem is fake eggs, made with starch and dyed ... ► Read full article and comments by Shoshana Walter in Modern Farmer

Source: Modern Farmer

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