The farm-to-table trend is cooking. Urban gardening is on the rise. And high-end chefs are riding the locavore wave, promising superior, sustainable ingredients that can be traced back to their fields and pastures, which are often just a few miles down the road.
It feels as though a new age of food transparency has dawned. But has it really?
As shown by Europe's recent horsemeat scandal—in which scores of products labeled as "beef" were found to contain up to 100 percent horsemeat—and arrests last spring of Chinese traders who were allegedly peddling rat meat as lamb, there's still considerable mystery around where a lot of our food comes from.
In many cases, that mystery extends to exactly what it is we're eating.
"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.
"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."
It's a problem that spans the globe.
A recent study found that in South Africa, nearly 80 percent of products labeled "game" actually contained varying amounts of nongame animals, including giraffe, waterbuck, and kangaroo. The most egregious filler: mountain zebra, a species that is "red listed"—meaning it's at risk for extinction—by theInternational Union for Conservation of Nature.
Unlike in Europe and some other places, meat fraud has not been a widespread problem in the United States, thanks largely to tough regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But seafood made headlines earlier this year when Oceana, an international nonprofit dedicated to ocean conservation, issued a report announcing that one-third of the fish sampled during a nationwide survey was incorrectly labeled.
Efforts like the recently proposed Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act(SAFE) and the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are helping draw public attention to the problem.
Experts say the most important thing consumers can do is ask questions about what they're about to buy: Who caught or farmed it? Where was it shipped from? What's in it?
If the retailer can't provide answers, some experts recommend shopping or dining elsewhere.
But even with the best intentions to shop for goods that are what their labels claim they are, consumers will likely encounter food fraud at some point along the way.
That could include a lovely salmon filet marked "wild" at the fish counter. Or the cereal made of "whole grains." Labels like "extra virgin olive oil" and "orange blossom honey" seem straightforward, but truth is that none are as reliable as you think.
It's in the Water
UCLA's Roberts describes the main impulse behind food fraud—increasing the value of a product and growing profits by cheating in processing and labeling—as "economic adulteration."
"This includes unapproved enhancement," he said, "like adding melamine to milk [which has happened in China], or you mislabel something, like sunflower oil may be sold as olive oil, or you dilute with water, or you substitute—for example, using beet sugar instead of honey."
The practice is running rampant in the U.S. seafood industry, according to the recent Oceana report.
The group's investigation found the highest levels of fraud related to red snapper; of 120 samples labeled as such, just seven turned out to be that fish. Other samples turned out to be rockfish, tilapia, and tilefish—a species known to contain mercury and which the Food and Drug Administration lists as harmful to pregnant women and children.
"Everywhere we tested we found seafood fraud," said Beth Lowell, a campaign director at Oceana. Over 90 percent of seafood in the U.S. is imported, and only about 2 percent of that catch is inspected at the border.
Even less is checked for fraud, said Lowell, who wants the FDA to step up regulation and inspections.
Theresa Eisenman, an FDA spokesperson, acknowledges that species substitution can be a public health risk, and said the agency is working toward "better-targeted and more efficient sampling strategies to identify seafood misbranding and adulteration."
Eisenman said the agency takes a prevention-oriented approach to seafood safety, including risk-based inspections and product tests.
Oceana wants Congress to pass the SAFE Act, introduced in March, to help combat seafood fraud. The bill mandates more cooperation and data sharing between federal agencies, particularly the FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, when it comes to inspections.
The proposed legislation would also require fishers to provide detailed information on their catches, including where and how fish were caught. The aim is total traceability, allowing consumers to follow seafood "from boat to plate."
Oceana's Lowell said that certain seafood dealers, like Red's Best in New England, are leading the charge with a commitment to "reducing the distance between you and your fisherman," allowing customers to track their fish back to the fisher who caught it using QR codes.
That kind of technology could dramatically change the honey industry.
Vaughn Bryant, director of Texas A&M's Palynology Laboratory and a leading pollen expert, said that when it comes to purchasing honey at the store, "let the buyer beware."
Much of it, he said, contains absolutely no pollen, despite what might be printed on the jar. Without pollen, there's no way to trace where a batch of honey came from.
These days, much of it comes from China, whose honey is subject to anti-dumping tariffs—duties that the U.S. government imposes on imported products that are being sold at less than fair market value. Chinese honey has recently made news for being "laundered" in places like Vietnam and Thailand.
"People importing honey want to make sure that what they're buying is really what they're getting," said Bryant. "One person wants to import a sizeable amount of honey from India, and wants to be sure they're getting Indian honey and not Chinese honey. "
Consumers may wish to purchase honey with a certain type of pollen for various health reasons, and while they're still getting honey, they may not be getting the kind they desire.
The issue is more serious for importers, said Bryant, who want to make sure what they're getting is legal. If not, they could end up in court.
Bryant has spent four decades working as a melissopalynologist, someone who studies pollen in honey. Many importers send him samples, to test whether the honey is from where the seller says it's from. "I look at about 150 to 200 samples a year," Bryant said.
More often than not, he finds that the honey samples don't contain the clover, tupelo, or other pollen listed on the label. Even the ones that do contain some pollen, he said, are mostly incorrectly marked.
In 2011, Bryant ran a test on honeys from several national grocery store chains and drugstores and found that nearly all were totally devoid of pollen. (Most people wouldn't be able to tell by taste, he said, in the same way that many people aren't able to pick up on nuances in wine.)
The FDA does not require food processors or importers to leave pollen in honey, as European regulators do. "If you purchase clover honey in Europe and it says clover honey [on the label], then by God it better be clover honey or you're going to get sued," Bryant said.
The FDA has posted import alerts for honey on its website. The most recentwarns against brands from India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Vietnam, in which imitation syrups, such as corn or cane, were found in place of actual nectar.
Fruit juice is another prime target for what UCLA's Roberts calls economic adulteration.
Most of the juice in juice beverages is apple, he said, even if it's labeled blueberry or cranberry: "Apple juice is the cheapest, and manufacturers aren't required to list percentages on the label."
Mary Donovan of the Juice Products Association, an advocate for the juice products industry, said federal law requires that labels on juice beverages list ingredients in descending order of prominence (based on weight) and declare the total percentage of fruit juice a beverage contains.
"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," she said.
The FDA, which regulates juice, took action this year in response to complaints it received about adulterated pomegranate juice.
After conducting tests on several products, the agency issued an alert on certain pomegranate juice brands from Turkey and Iran in February, saying they contained "undeclared ingredients" like "black currant, apple, pear or cherry juices in place of pomegranate juice."
Hungry for Change
There is some good news in the battle against food fraud. In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which gives the FDA more authority to require higher levels of testing and compliance across the food chain, with a heavy emphasis on preventing problems (like foodborne illness) rather than reacting to them.
The bill is focused on food safety, but UCLA's Roberts hopes it will shed light on food fraud as well. "It's a possible tool to help combat economic adulteration," he said, in part because "it requires the FDA for the first time to inspect foreign facilities that import products into the U.S."
As far as budgeting for economic adulteration, the FDA's Eisenman said it's hard to estimate how much the agency spends combating food fraud because those cases are classified as general food safety.
But the agency does have a group dedicated to what it calls "economically motivated adulteration." Established in 2011, the task force includes scientists, economists, and lawyers whose job is to draw more attention to food fraud and to establish ways to prevent it.
Roberts feels that the tide is turning somewhat. "I have found a difference in their response," he said, referring to the FDA's economic adulteration task force. "There's a greater recognition that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with."