Food fraud cases growing, as well as safety warnings

food fraud, bad fish, FDAThere's a scene from the old John Candy movie Summer Rental in which Candy and his family order a dish called "Sully's Catch of the Day" at a seaside restaurant. The dish is advertised as being freshly caught, lightly breaded and sautéed grouper, but it turns out, it's just frozen fish sticks yanked from the grocery store.

For a while there, I kind of believed this was a rare thing and the stuff of cheap movie laughs, or part and parcel of the very obvious "bottled spring water is really just tap water" legend.

But it's actually getting to be serious business, gathered under the descriptive banner of "food fraud" -- a type of false advertising that appears to be evolving into a potentially dangerous and widespread crisis. Big enough, in fact, to warrant increased attention from the Food and Drug Administration. As much as 7% of our food supply isn't what it claims to be.

Recently, in a Summer Rental case gone horribly awry, a northern Virginia scam artist was caught selling to customers what they thought was pricey fresh fish, but instead turned out to be frozen catfish imported from Vietnam. 10 million pounds of it, all told. Until investigators stepped in, there was no convenient way of knowing whether the frozen fish was even edible, much less the correct species.

According to the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory, an agency also tasked with monitoring mercury levels in fish (not to mention something called "shrimp virus"), determined that 34% of all fish sold in the United States wasn't really the species we thought we were buying. It turns out that only 2% of all imported fish is inspected by the FDA.

As someone who eats a lot of fish, this news is more than a little alarming. But it's not just regular people like you and me who are being duped by food fraud.

In a much larger and complex scam, known as "Operation Rotten Tomato," one of California's oldest tomato growers, SK Foods, had been under investigation for selling moldy, expired tomato derivatives to food makers like Kraft and Heinz, but selling it under the guise of being more expensive forms of paste. The IRS, the FDA and the FBI investigated SK Foods for five years to determine the specifics of the deception. It turns out that the company had been selling millions of pounds of the expired paste. Additionally, SK Foods apparently sold normal tomatoes as "organic."

Meanwhile, the company's owner, 54-year-old Scott Sayler, had been allegedly engaging in bribery, mail fraud and other misdeeds in order to out-sell his competitors. Sayler eventually fled the country to Switzerland, but was arrested by the FBI when he returned to America in February.

The FBI's lead investigator, Special Agent Paul Artley, told EuroDaily, "A case like this undermines consumer trust. And I take it personally because I was a victim just like every other consumer. Fortunately, we were able to put a stop to it."

Scientists, meanwhile, are developing new ways to detect food fraud. DNA testing and a process known as isotope ratio mass spectrometry are able to discover even the most minor details about the origins of meat and produce. The technology has become less expensive and more readily available, but still outside the reach of average consumers who continue to be mostly engaged in a crap shoot whenever buying food -- at the mercy of incomplete labeling and misleading health claims.

Robyn O'Brien, a food expert and the author of The Unhealthy Truth, recommends other ways to weed out potential food fraud at the grocery store, "Stick with ingredients that your grandmother would have used in her kitchen, use products that contain ingredients that a third grader can read and pronounce, avoid ingredients that have been artificially engineered in a lab as they tend to be a compound blend."

And, O'Brien reminds us, there's strength in numbers, "As eaters, there are 300 million of us who can collectively call for increased transparency from food manufacturers simply by changing the way we navigate the grocery store aisles."

The irony, of course, is that food companies happily commit similar, and mostly legal, kinds of food fraud.

As of today, unless we only buy organic foods (or so we're told), we still don't know whether or not the vegetable products we're eating have been genetically modified by companies like Monsanto, and we still don't know for sure whether or not the genetically modified produce will cause long term damage. There simply aren't any requirements for labeling food products as being genetically modified. Elsewhere, we're still being told that foods like Froot Loops are an "excellent source of fiber," that FudgeSicles are a "smart choice," and that eating Honey Nut Cheerios will reduce your cholesterol levels.

Despite spending billions on regulatory agencies, the food industry continues to get away with murder -- almost literally.

The FDA, in a November 2007 report, wrote, "We can no longer vouchsafe the American food supply. American lives are at risk." O'Brien notes that it might be because the FDA's annual budget is only around $4 billion, while the annual defense budget is closer to $700 billion.

While this modest budget might be enough to snare "Sully's Catch of the Day," I'm not sure it's enough to solve a crisis in which thousands of lives (if not more) are at risk.
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