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Food Fraud


Linked to dozens of deaths in Europe, Germany’s E. coli outbreak has people around the world wondering how safe their food really is. Here, in the United States, special agents are working hard to keep your family safe from counterfeit food.  The underground industry brings in about $50 billion a year. But deception and mislabeling may leave you misinformed or even dead.
From the grocery store to the farmer's market to your refrigerator…What you’re buying and what you’re eating may not be what it seems.
Doug Karas, with the FDA, says there are two ways food fraud works: One, by cheating the weight of a product. Two, by substituting a lower quality item.
The most well-known counterfeit products are olive oil, honey and seafood.
The National Seafood Inspection Laboratory determined 34 percent of all fish sold in the U.S. wasn’t really the species we thought we were buying. Only 2 percent of all imported fish is inspected by the FDA.
“When a fish is fillet, it’s very difficult to tell one fish from another,” Karas told Ivanhoe.

“You don’t know what’s in there. You don’t know what you’re eating,” David Shaw, Assistant Special Agent for Immigrations Customs Enforcement, told Ivanhoe.
Shaw works on the front line -- tracking down the food before it gets to you.
The FDA inspects only 1 percent of the 10 million products shipped into the country annually. Agent Shaw says that’s why food fraud is an easy and lucrative way for organized crime to make money.
“The penalties are not there yet. We have not seen anyone get more than nine months of home confinement,” Shaw said.
In "Operation Rotten Tomato," one of California’s oldest growers, SK Foods, was investigated for selling moldy, expired tomato derivatives to Kraft and Heinz but selling it under the guise of being more expensive forms of paste.
In other cases, pricy sheep's milk cheese was actually the product of cow's milk, and honey was diluted with corn syrup -- all of these items were marketed 100 percent pure and sold at a premium price.
“There’s a near infinite number of fraudsters, and there’s a near infinite number of types of fraud,” John Spink, Ph.D., associate director and assistant professor at the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program School of Criminal Justice, at Michigan State University, told Ivanhoe. The Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program at Michigan State is the first in the country to help develop anti-counterfeiting strategies. Spink fears if we don’t get in control of it now, lives will be put in jeopardy. We’ve already seen what can happen when 3,600 pets died because of food fraud.
“Melamine was put in pet food because that product made it look like it had more protein in it,” Spink said.
Melamine is 66 percent nitrogen and is used to make plastics.
“If something bad gets into the system, it can move and impact so many people so quickly,” Spink said.
The Food Safety Modernization Act is potentially the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food safety system in nearly 75 years. It ups the ante against criminals -- directing $1.4 billion to inspect foreign food sources. Another way to protect ourselves is with DNA testing, which is able to discover the origins of meat and produce. 
“You can get DNA from a 40,000 year old wooly mammoth just like you can get DNA from most of our food,” Mark Stoeckle, M.D., from Rockefeller University, told Ivanhoe.
Dr. Stoeckle created a way for the DNA of food to be tested. His high-school daughter actually put it to the test for a school project. She targeted sushi.
“We found that a quarter of the items that she purchased were mislabeled,” Dr. Stoeckle said.
Whether it’s mislabeling to make more money or selling tainted products, food fraud impacts us all, and it’s going to take all of us to beat it.
“I’ve never kicked down a door of a counterfeiter or handcuffed anybody, but what I do is work with the people who do, and those people are out there risking their lives every day, guns in their faces, trying to go track down these bad guys,’ Spink said.
Although food fraud is generally thought of more as an economic risk than a health risk, there is still a danger. One in 6 Americans, 48 million people, contract a food-borne illness each year. 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die as a result.
If you suspect food fraud, report it to the FDA by calling the hotline at 888-SAFEFOOD.