FOX19 Investigates: Agents tracking fake food and wine - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

FOX19 Investigates: Agents tracking fake food and wine

(Source: FDA) (Source: FDA)
(FOX19) -

Chances are, you already know to avoid the fake purses and sunglasses that are knock-offs of expensive brands. Now investigators are tracking down counterfeit goods that are much more serious... fake food.

Finding food disguised to look like the more expensive item on the label is a constant battle for investigators around the world.

In video shot by Interpol, you can see investigations of potentially counterfeit products which could have ended-up in the United States: candy bars, fish, cheese, even tomato sauce.

"Consumers are being cheated," said John Spink, at the University of Michigan's Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program. "We think we're buying high value or specific type of product and the bad guys have swapped it out with something that's inferior."

The problem is so big that a new national database was recently created to try to track it. The keyword being "try" because it's so hard to spot this type of crime during production and shipping. Once it makes it to market, consumers don't realize they've been ripped-off unless they get sick.

"Food adulteration is designed (not to be) detected," said Markus Lipp of the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. "So frequently adulterers do not use fake ingredients that would cause immediate health problems."

A new study is revealing the top counterfeited foods.

Spink says 16-percent involved olive oil: often diluted with cheaper oils. 14-percent involved milk that was watered-down. Seven-percent was honey adulterated with sugar and corn syrups. Fruit juice accounted for two-percent to four-percent of cases. It was watered-down or diluted with other types of juice.

Not only are you not getting what you paid for, it could be downright dangerous.

"The bad guys aren't following good manufacturing practices," said Spink. "There's such a risk for contamination that can be very lethal."

The most recent case involved vodka laced with methanol, which left some college students in the U.K. with permanent vision damage.

Many legitimate companies are now hiring security firms to monitor their products.

"We've unfortunately found counterfeits of pretty much any product that you can think of," said Tara Steketee of OpSec Security.

Something that just popped-up recently, garden-variety tomatoes being marketed as the more expensive heirloom kind. But for every port investigators inspect and each case police crack, experts know there are always more con artists out there trying to take advantage of people when they buy food.

"There are not ten of these bad guys in the world and we can go arrest eight of them," Spink said. "There's a near infinite number of fraudsters and there's a near infinite type of fraud."

It's not hard to imagine one of the bad guys watering down olive oil to achieve bigger profits. But how can you tell if someone's trying to sell you counterfeit wine? It seems you sometimes have to be a regular Sherlock Holmes. Federal investigators say they discovered a man was trying to auction-off expensive wines that were supposedly made after World War II. The only problem is, they discovered the vineyard he claimed the wine was from didn't even start bottling its wine until 1982.

The wine dealer has been indicted and is fighting the charges.

If you suspect food fraud, call police and also make sure you let your local health department know. That way they can also start an investigation to see if the counterfeit food or beverage could make someone sick.

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