By Kelli B. Grant, SmartMoney
Most consumers know to ignore emails alerting them to foreign lottery winnings and to steer clear of "designer" bags sold on street corners. But experts say even scam-savvy shoppers may be falling prey to fraud at a surprising place: the grocery store.
Food fraud -- the adulteration, dilution or mislabeling of goods stocked on the shelf -- is part of a growing trend of faux household goods . Although there is little data on the frequency of food fakery, experts say there's growing awareness of the problem. The lack of information on the subject recently prompted the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention -- a nonprofit that sets standards used by the FDA -- to establish a Food Fraud Database. And a new study in the Journal of Food Science analyzed the top offenders identified by the database, including olive oil, milk and honey. "We're seeing similar trends in food to other items -- if it can be faked, it probably is," says Tara Steketee, the senior manager for brand protection at OpSec Security, an anti-counterfeiting consulting firm. "There are actually counterfeit tomatoes, believe it or not." (In that example, she says, garden-variety tomatoes get marketed as the more expensive heirloom ones.)
The growing number of imported foods consumed by Americans makes it harder to identify the frauds, experts say. A recent FDA-commissioned Institute of Medicine study found the quantity of imported foods and drugs nearly tripled over the past 10 years. Currently, imports account for 85% of seafood, 39% of fruits and nuts and 18% of vegetables. That leads to great variety, but also increased risk from less rigorous food safety practices in other countries, says Clare Narrod, the risk analysis program manager for the University of Maryland's Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, who served on the committee preparing the Institute of Medicine study. Criminals may also re-route a problem product through other countries in an attempt to evade U.S. bans.