Monday, July 15, 2013

Counterfeit Foods: Are You Eating the Real Thing?

Think counterfeiting only extends to that knock-off name-brand purse or those slightly irregular DVDs you bought on the street? Think again. Everything is fair game to counterfeiters these days, from music to computer equipment to car parts.

But perhaps most frightening: The food you eat and the beverages you drink might not be the real thing.

While all counterfeiting is problematic, counterfeit food and beverages are especially tricky. The inherent health and safety risks are higher than those associated with, say, a knockoff pair of sunglasses, and they're also harder to detect once they've made their way onto store shelves. And unlike a fake purse whose handle falls off after you buy it, fake foods can hurt more than your wallet.

A Fish by Any Other Name

But beyond mere mislabeling is a more insidious type of food fraud: creating inferior products meant to pass as brand-name goods.

With advances in technology, a localized market and the constant push for value pricing, it's not always easy to tell what's real and what's fake.
Charges of mislabeling items to increase the sales prices aren't new. Only last year, large retailers were targeted in a lawsuit that claimed the products they were selling as organic weren't. Tamara Ward of the Food and Drug Administration says that counterfeit food cases can occur when consumers can't easily tell one item from another (as is often the case with certain varieties of fish), or are unable to distinguish by taste the differences among types of certain foods (such as extra virgin olive oil or raw honey).

Looks Can Be Very Deceiving

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the most successful food fraud occurs when the inferior item is not easily distinguishable from the real deal.

With advances in technology, it's becoming markedly more difficult to determine a counterfeit label from a real one, even in the face of anti-counterfeit security devices like holograms or tax labels. Well-designed packaging (even creating fake "brands") also helps these goods gain traction, enabling them to blend well on store shelves because they don't stand out next to their legitimate peers.

Counterfeiters will make most of their upfront investment in label-making equipment, and less investment in the inferior ingredients going into the food items. Simply put, the more they spend on the outside, the less they'll spend on the inside.

"In most cases, food fraud, or 'economically motivated adulteration,' is a pocketbook issue," Ward says, "but when ingredients are illegally substituted for what is on the label, consumers may be affected by unsuspected allergens or, in the worst case scenario, by toxic contaminants such as melamine."

So scan your shopping cart with skepticism. While it may be nearly impossible to tell a fake from the real thing, the same rule of avoiding counterfeit purses applies: Use common sense, don't buy an item with a label that has spelling errors or misprinted labels, and be wary of prices that seem too low.


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