Criminal syndicates are adulterating olive oil and other products, putting consumers at risk, according to reports from the CBS News magazine “60 Minutes.”
BY ERIC KULISCH |MONDAY, JANUARY 04, 2016
If you think food imports from China are the only ones in the United States adulterated by scam artists to make a buck, guess again.
Over the years, there have been numerous findings of unsafe products in Chinese food products, including baby melamine-tainted infant formula, cadmium-laced rice, tainted dog food, vinegar contaminated with anti-freeze and bean sprouts treated with a banned plant hormone to make them more attractive to consumers. Many of the food safety problems have been isolated to the Chinese domestic market, but the products often make their way to the U.S. and other markets.
Taking short cuts in food sanitation, or using cheap fillers to dupe consumers into paying more for brand-name product, however, is a global concern for regulators and public health officials.
On Sunday, the CBS News magazine “60 Minutes” aired a feature story on the mafia’s alleged influence over the food industry in Italy and how the organization uses its control of farmers and distributors to sell phony olive oil, wine, cheese and other products, many of which are exported to the United States.
According to the report, a large focus of the criminal enterprise, dubbed the “Agromafia,” is on extra virgin olive oil, which can sell for upwards of $50 per gallon. By diluting the extra virgin olive oil with sunflower or canola oil the mafia can produce oil for just $7 per gallon, vastly increasing its profit margin.
In November, Italian authorities seized 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, much it headed to the United States and rebranded as more expensive Italian extra virgin olive oil.
The report said the mafia also uses detergent to make cheap cheese appear white like mozzarella and deodorizes rotten seafood with citric acid. Italian wines are also watered down with cheap grades of wine and sold at premium prices.
Up to three-quarters of the extra virgin olive oil exported to the United States from Italy has been adulterated, according to one estimate.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said they are aware of efforts to ship fraudulent olive oil to the United States.
The fraud is not only an economic drain on legitimate producers, who lose sales, and consumers, who don't get what they pay for, but also poses health risks. Unlabeled products or chemicals introduced into food can cause allergic reactions or otherwise cause harm to unsuspecting consumers.
The situation in Italy - and China - raises serious questions about the integrity of the U.S. food supply chain and how much supermarkets and retailers know about their suppliers and the various sources of the foods they buy and sell to the U.S. market.