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Food Fraud: You Are What You Eat - But Can You Trust Food Labels?

Food Fraud

I've got my shopping list ready for the store, and I'm going to check all the labels just to be sure that what I'm eating is good for me. Sounds like a smart nutrition plan, right? Wrong, according to the latest research, which indicates that careful consumers need to take further precautions to interpret those food labels, reported the National Geographic on July 12. And it's not just in the United States: The problem occurs on an international basis.

Beyond Food Labels
Recently, European gourmands shuddered when many of their "beef" products were discovered to contain as much as 100 percent horse meat. Followed by that: Arrests of Chinese traders selling rat meat labeled as lamb (baaaa).

Can it be managed? "Unfortunately, controlling the amount of fraud that occurs daily in the food industry is next to impossible," said Michael Roberts, a professor of food law and policy at UCLA and director of the Center for Food Law and Policy. And he believes that no food is immune to this situation. "Almost anything can be adulterated in some way," he added, "either to persuade consumers to buy something for their health, or by diluting it to save money on the supplier end."

How the Environment Is Impacted
Beyond our own health, the health of our environment is impacted. In South Africa, almost 80 percent of products labeled "game" consisted of non-game animals, some of which are at risk for extinction, such as mountain zebra. Other animals that were used for "game" meat included giraffe, waterbuck, and kangaroo, according to the study.

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Think that you're safe in the U.S.A.? Not when it comes to seafood. Oceana, an international nonprofit dedicated to ocean conservation, recently revealed that when it conducted a nationwide survey, one-third of all fish that they sampled had been labeled inaccurately.

Questions to Ask When You Shop
What can you do as a concerned consumer? Ask questions from retailers and write to manufacturers to question what they mean. Questions you should ask include:

  • Is it farmed or freshly caught?
  • Where was it shipped from?
  • What are the ingredients?
  • What does the marketing label mean (particularly important when you see a label such as "Whole Grains" on cereals or "Orange Blossom" on honey jars)

Fake Fruit Juice
For a key example of food fraud, consider fruit juice labels, says Mike Roberts from UCLA. It may be labeled blueberry or cranberry juice, but many of those beverages contain apple juice because it's "the cheapest, and manufacturers aren't required to list percentages on the label."

How can you know? Mary Donovan of the Juice Products Association recommends looking carefully at the order in which labels list ingredients. Per federal law, ingredients are listed in the order in which they dominate the product. But she admits: "Juice blends, including some blueberry and cranberry juices, may contain a more mild juice such as apple or pear to meet consumer preferences for taste."

Message to remember: Read the label - and then ask.