Farm Fakes: A History of Fraudulent Food

Throughout time, humans have been purposefully mislabeling, marketing and adulterating food. But thanks to a global economy, one food fake can reach millions of people; are we doing enough to stop it?

Early Saturday morning, Jimmy and Junior parked their rickety pickup truck behind a table in the center of the Richmond, Indiana’s local farmer’s market, where Lucy Goodman and her husband, owners of a CSA farm, liked to sell their organic produce.

Jimmy and Junior were “already tanked,” Goodman recalled. After unloading boxes of produce onto a folding table, Jimmy perched a fedora over his head and sprawled onto a chair for a nap. Junior, a ruddy-nosed man with a lisp, dealt with the customers. He advertised their “local” offerings: oranges, bananas and pineapples.

Except, of course, they weren’t. “That’s a bunch of – excuse my French – bullshit,” Goodman said. “That stuff doesn’t grow around here. It’s cold and there’s a lot of snow outside. There’s no way he could be growing tropical stuff.”

Junior and Jimmy’s pathetic attempt at a food scam is part of a long and storied tradition: as long as profit could be made, there has been someone willing to masquerade their product as something better, fresher and safer than it really is, cutting corners with cheaper ingredients or replacing it with something else entirely.

Like our food system, food fakes span the globe.

Fake food has plagued mankind for centuries; next to prostitution, historians consider counterfeiting the world’s second oldest profession. But food fakery these days is vastly more complex, and much harder to trace than in the past. Like our food system, food fakes span the globe. In today’s market, wheat gluten adulterated with melamine finds its way from China into “all natural” pet food in the United States, killing thousands of cats and dogs. A man sells synthetic fake organic fertilizer to the country’s largest organic farm, leaving many consumers wondering if their organic spinach is true to its “certified organic” label. A red snapper at a suburban New York Whole Foods, scientists discover, is actually a much smaller, poorer fish.

“Fish is moved out of the water anywhere in the world, and it can be in a retail store in the United States within 48 hours,” said John Spink, associate director of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program at Michigan State University. “There’s probably no more fraud per capita or per person today than there was in ancient Roman times. There’s just more people now. And it’s multiplied because of globalization and manufacturing.”

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In ancient Rome, winemakers sweetened wine with lead. In Europe in the Middle Ages, bakers, butchers and brewers faced harsh consequences for selling adulterated food or “contagious flesh,” including time in the pillory or a tumbrel, a torturous chair device that repeatedly dunks its occupant into water. In Britain in the 1700s, anyone who sold fake tea could be sent to prison.

In the mid-19th century, New York’s dairy farmers discovered a great way to expand their profits: cheap feed in the form of waste from distilleries. The grainy alcoholic mash produced “swill” milk. Watery and blue-tinted, farmers mixed in starch, plaster, chalk and eggs to improve texture and color, then diluted it with water and other substances before delivering the bottles to helpless city dwellers.

A lithograph from the 1870s, during the height of the 'swill milk' scandal.

Photo By Library of Congress

Situations like that were what made the 1800s food’s darkest period in the United States and Britain, says British food writer Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork and Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. Industrialization and urbanization expanded quickly, according to University of Vermont economics professor Marc Law, creating the beginning of a now endless food supply chain to consumers, who came to know less and less about their food.

The Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry, a precursor to the Food and Drug Administration, was the government’s first concrete step towards regulating the country’s expanding food industry. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln founded the department and appointed a chief chemist. For the first time, concerned consumers could send suspicious food samples to government-funded chemists at “Experiment Stations” across the country. Food producers and manufacturers could use the chemists’ stamps of approval to weed out their competition, whose product, they claimed, was fake and inferior to their own.

In the Progressive years that followed, labor unions, the pure foods movement, journalism and chemistry advances helped propel food fraud and safety into consumer consciousness, coalescing with special business interests.

In 1906, Congress passed the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act, the first of many major food regulation laws.

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Little Girl was a tabby cat with a sweet disposition. But she died an early, painful death when, in 2007, Judith Quintana fed her “venison and green peas” cat food.

Little Girl’s kidneys failed after eating the brand, one of 180 pet food lines tainted with melamine, a chemical used to make plastic lawn chairs. Dozens of pet food companies such as Iams and Purina and major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Petco issued recalls. In the end, they resolved a class action lawsuit with a $24 million settlement.

How the chemical, not approved for food use in the United States, ended up in hundreds of pet food lines reveals a lot about our current food system.

The story, according to court documents, begins with Stephen and Sally Miller, the former owners of ChemNutra, “the China source experts.” Sally Qing Miller, now an amateur photographer in the Las Vegas area, was a Chinese national with an engineering degree in food chemistry from Hangzhou University. In 2006, the couple was running ChemNutra out of a small office in Las Vegas when they won a series of lucrative contracts to supply wheat gluten for several major pet food manufacturers in the United States. The Millers contracted SSC, an export company in China.

In turn, SSC contracted XAC, a manufacturer of wheat gluten, a protein rich powder that acts as a binding agent in pet food. Instead of meeting the required protein content of 75 percent, XAC added lower-cost melamine to the gluten mixture, increasing the nitrogen count and creating the appearance of a higher protein content. Emails revealed the Millers knew about the melamine. Had Chinese inspectors been allowed to examine the gluten, they might have found it. But although China requires inspection of gluten products, SSC used another code on export documents to avoid detection. When the gluten arrived at a Kansas City port, the Millers advised their customs broker to change the codes back to gluten to allow their entrance into the United States. They imported close to 900 tons.

From there, food processors contracted by pet food companies manufactured the pet food. The products fanned out across the United States.

“We bought the best food money can buy for a cat,” said Quintana, 70, a retired airline attendant. She keeps Little Girl’s ashes in a wooden box beside her bed. We got it from Petco.”

The Millers were sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay a total of $35,000 in fines.

Their story exemplifies the difficulties of regulating today’s global food supply chain, which has expanded far beyond the industrial plants and factories of 19th century United States. Food manufacturers now source ingredients from China and dozens of others countries throughout the world to create products that are made, packaged or sold in the United States.

“Americans have been asking for cheap food for a long time. Very accessible, cheap food,” said Chris Gardner, founder of Stanford University’s food summit. “And that’s what we’ve been delivering at the price of quality. We’ve all become very disconnected with what’s involved in making food.”

Today, the Bureau of Chemistry no longer exists. Now more than 16 federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, oversee more than 30 major food laws. After salmonella and E. coli outbreaks, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, dramatically expanding the FDA’s power to regulate food production in part by outsourcing foreign inspections to other governments.

Yet the power of the FDA is far eclipsed by the global enormity of our food supply. The FDA oversees 80 percent of our food, but as recently as 2011, was only able to inspect 11 percent of U.S. facilities and 2.3 percent of food imports. Though foreign food manufacturers far outnumber U.S. facilities, the FDA in 2011 only inspected 995, or 0.4 percent, of them.

The United States has attempted to block some hazardous products from entering the country, but food exporters have found crafty ways around it. After the U.S. imposed a hefty tariff on Chinese honey due to the presence of antibiotics, Chinese manufacturers routed the product to other countries. Soon U.S. consumers began seeing honey from Argentina and India, instead.

In 2009, China executed two men and sentenced a top dairy executive to life in prison after tainted milk killed six children.

Researchers contend that food fakery is not necessarily more common now, but the repercussions are certainly more far-reaching. Many of the most notorious food scandals have come from China, where news reports have detailed scores of domestic food issues, including tofu fermented with sewer water, gutter oil re-sold as vegetable oil, arsenic in soy sauce, bleach in mushrooms and metal cadmium in rice. Nothing seems to be sacred when it comes to food fakes: a recurring problem is fake eggs, made with starch and dyed.

In 2009, China executed two men and sentenced a top dairy executive to life in prison for their roles in a tainted milk scandal that killed at least six children. In fake food or medicine cases, Chinese criminal law requires a maximum sentence of death if “death is caused to another person or especially serious harm is done to human health.” But China’s oversight of food systems is inconsistent. Enforcement is still a largely local – not centralized – affair, leading some legal experts to believe that corruption in local government has hampered China’s food safety efforts.

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For all of the current regulation, the United States has a food blind spot: mislabeling products in this country can be a winning (and legal) sales strategy.

Journalists have found endless examples of manufacturers marketing food as something it’s not. For instance, most cinnamon sold in the United States is actually cassia. In Europe, selling anything called champagne is illegal unless it came from Champagne, France, but in the United States such labels are rampant. Although until recently, Japanese meat was not allowed entry into the United States, culture critic Larry Olmsted said many restaurants continued to claim they served Kobe beef, an expensive and rare delicacy.

In Olmsted’s view, the fault lies in the United States government for refusing to acknowledge foreign trademarks and standards, allowing the food industry to benefit from the reputation of higher quality goods. With so many hands in the food production process, it is not only food producers who benefit from selling something under a label that garners a heftier price. In 2012, the nonprofit ocean advocacy group Oceana released a study showing that fish is very often mislabeled in restaurants and grocery stores in big cities throughout the United States. In many cases, well-intentioned consumers who bought wild salmon were acting buying fish that was farmed.

'Honey laundering' — mislabeling cheap Chinese honey as more expensive varietals — continues to be a problem.
Kobe beef is very rare yet strangely common on U.S. menus

    This confusion even carries through to the organic movement, one of the most powerful trends in contemporary food. Founded as an alternative to industrial agriculture, urging more sustainable, natural and ecologically-sound practices, organic agriculture has become a global entity, complicating consumer access to information. As anyone who has spent any time inside a farming message board knows, debates rage about the semantics of “free range” and what kinds of chemicals should be banned by the National Organic Standards Board (but aren’t.)

    “Large operations – whether they’re farmers or food processors – want to operate more by industrial principles because you want to maximize efficient production for maximum return,” said Tim Josling, professor at Stanford’s Food Research Institute, and an original member of the National Organic Standards Board. “The standards have opened the door to the kind of industrialization that keeps threatening our system.”

    Swindlers have taken advantage of the federal government’s lax enforcement of organic laws. After a federal auditor gave the Department of Agriculture poor marks on enforcement, authorities have made a show of cracking down on fake organics. Last year, Peter Townsley was sentenced to nearly a year in prison after making and selling Biolizer, a semi-synthetic fertilizer he claimed was organic. The organization that had certified the fertilizer as organic only required Townsley to send a list of ingredients; Townsley obliged, omitting his synthetics from the list.

    For up to seven years, Earthbound Farms, one of the largest producers of organic produce in the country, used the non-organic fertilizer. But they have yet to lose their organic certification.

    Lucy Goodman, the raspy-voiced CSA farmer, called the double standard unfair. Her farm briefly lost organic certification about ten years ago, she said, after they accidentally used a non-organic fertilizer on a portion of their nine-acre southwestern Ohio farm.

    But they won it back, and when Goodman took a spot on the board of the Richmond farmer’s market, she instituted a “local only” rule. They kicked ten people out of the market, including Junior.

    After he left the market, Goodman would see him selling produce out of his truck in parking lots and on the side of the road. She could tell they were still warehouse-bought because of the tropical origins of the fruit. They were uniform in size, and stacked in clean packing boxes bearing brand names she’d seen at Kroger and other major grocery stores.

    “He’d have tomatoes in May. Watermelons in June. Pineapples, oranges and bananas, none of which would grow in east central Indiana,” she said. “He would mark them up more than they would ever charge in stores and say he grew it himself. And people would believe him.”

    Farm Fakes: A History of Fraudulent Food