What would you say if I told you the organic apples you just bought were not really organic, or the organic milk you splurged on was really conventional milk? Your reaction might be one of disbelief, anger or exasperation – all of which are normal. Few American consumers doubt the authenticity of their food. What do we mean by “authentic?” Simply that the description matches the actual product. Shouldn’t be too much to ask, right? Yet the consumers in Germany buying Italian grains falsely marked as “organic” or the Californians buying soy milk from Dean Foods who falsely advertised as “organic” faced precisely this dilemma: the reality of food fraud. (You can read the list of common food offenders here, where we found the fun photo of Mr. Tomato.)
Happily, there are people who are fighting back to solve the international problem of food fraud. So what is being done?
One answer comes from the Sustainable Food Summit, which took place this June 7th and 8thin Amsterdam. The aim of the summit was to “explore new horizons for eco-labels and sustainability.” Food manufacturers, raw material providers, distributers, industry organizations, certification agencies, researchers, academics and investors came together to discuss the progress in and problems facing sustainable foods.
Of the Summit’s four sessions, one specifically addressed Food Authenticity. Topics discussed included how to safeguard consumer interests by fighting against food fraud. Attendees reviewed the tools and techniques of identifying food fraud, for example,fingerprinting, omic technologies, mass spectrometry and isotopes.
Though organic food and conventional food often look the same, the good news is that youcan determine way to tell the way something has been farmed, but only through these technological methods.
So what difference will these new technologies and techniques make? Even with these resources, does the USDA have enough time and people to examine each organic product on the market? In an incident in Oregon where the Milton-Freeman farm sold conventional grain marketed as organic, a testifying witness said, “The whole thing is based on integrity. … You can’t have people trying to game the system.” Unfortunately, integrity is not enough to keep some farmers from illegally identifying organic food, which is where the summit steps in, to improve techniques to catch these cases of fraud.
To learn more, you can visit the U.S. Pharmacopeial Food Fraud Database, where you can search for cases of food fraud and report new ones. The database tracks food fraud and attempts to find patterns, to reveal which ingredients may be more susceptible to food fraud. Another tip is to look for food products with third party certification (we’ll discuss this more in the weeks ahead), meaning that an organization not affiliated with the producer examines the products. Look for products you know, trust, and have a USDA or other kind of official certification. With initiatives like the database, the Sustainable Food Summit, and a greater consumer demand for transparency and regulation, the fight against food fraud continues.
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