July 23, 2015 -- The food you’re placing in your grocery cart may not be exactly what it says it is.
One-hundred percent olive oil? It could have canola or peanut oil. Honey? Might be mostly cane syrup. Parmesan cheese in a can? You might be shaking a little wood pulp out with the cheese.
And there’s really no way of knowing.
Food adulteration happens when something is added or taken away from a product without including it on the label. A recent Congressional Research Service report estimates that it affects about 10% of all products sold, although it says that number is probably a fraction of how often it really happens.
The fallout may cost the global food industry $10 billion to $15 billion per year, according to an estimate from the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
There’s another cost that’s harder to explain in numbers: Loss of consumer trust.
“It’s a very unsettling issue, because we all depend on food, and it’s devastating for consumer trust,” says Markus Lipp, PhD, senior director of food standards at US Pharmacopeia. The nonprofit agency helps set quality standards for food, drugs, and supplements.
Lipp says adulteration is driven by money. It costs less money to thin out or substitute the product with cheaper ones.
The substitutions could also have a health impact, particularly for people with food allergies. The FDA reported at least 12 allergic reactions caused by cumin from India that was contaminated with peanut proteins. The cumin was part of a recall in 2014.
The FDA can take action, including working to remove a product from shelves, when “economically motivated adulteration is identified in a regulated food product,” agency spokeswoman Megan McSeveney says. “Combating food fraud is the responsibility of both industry and regulatory authorities.”
Ensuring products’ safety and integrity and maintaining consumer confidence is “the single most important goal of our industry,” says Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “That is why food, beverage, and consumer products companies take economic adulteration, or product fraud, very seriously.”
Spices are among the most common food products that are adulterated, according to the congressional report. Here are some others, according to the report and food experts.