2013 hasn’t been a stellar year for consumer advocates in the food world: back in February, European diners learned that as much as five percent of their beef was actually horse meat, while American ocean conservation group Oceana backed up the claims it’s been making for years and published a study finding that up to a third of fish in markets and restaurants was mislabeled. And according to the latest dispatch from the New York Times, food fraud is rapidly becoming an “epidemic” and a staple of international crime.
The Times story begins with a downright scary account of a British counterfeit vodka operation that used bleach and methanol to create cheap, watered-down alcohol to sell for a profit. Run by “vodka gang boss” Kevin Eddishaw, the group operated an industrial-scale production plant in rural Great Dalby, producing over 165,000 bottles of bogus Glen’s Vodka. Eddishaw’s group, the article claims, is just one of many “organized international criminal networks lured by the potential for big profits in an illicit trade in which most forgers are never caught.”
Other food fraud tactics are less potentially lethal than Eddishaw’s poison booze, but the Times surveys a “huge range of deceptions” that include “selling catfish as sea bream, labeling farmed salmon as wild or marketing battery-produced eggs as organic or free range…Sometimes vegetable oil goes into chocolate bars, or pomegranate juice, wine, coffee, honey or olive oil is adulterated with water, sweeteners or cheaper substitutes.”
Even though we could think of worse fates than accidentally downing some vegetable oil, the main risk of food fraud lies in mislabeled allergens, expired food, or foods that violate dietary restrictions—a practice that got McDonald’s in hot water recently when it forked over $700,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging it was passing off non-halal foods as halal. Unfortunately, beyond keeping their fingers crossed, there’s simply not much consumers can do—except wait for someone to make Eddishaw’s story into the mob movie of our generation, stat.