Food Fraud Tests U.S. Markets, Lawyers Say

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By Steven M. Sellers

Dairy, seafood, poultry, and olive oil are high on the “food fraud” list, with dilution and substitution of lesser-quality ingredients being the most common abuses, food safety lawyers said Sept. 14.

But litigation, regulation, and a better consensus on the definitions of foods are making inroads on fraud in foods ranging from cumin to peppercorns, the lawyers said.

“There’s a role for litigation,” said attorney Christopher Van Gundy, of Keller & Heckman in San Francisco, who represented Townsend Farms Inc. in litigation against a Turkish supplier of pomegranate seeds sold in Costco Wholesale Co. stores.

The seed mix was tainted with the Hepatitis A virus that resulted in an illness outbreak in 2013 that sickened 162 people in 10 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

“We just got a big judgment against the Turkish company,” Van Gundy said, referring to $2.7 million in compensatory damages and $4.8 million in punitive damages Townsend Farms was awarded against Göknur Gidamaddeleri Enerji Imalat Ithalat Ihracat Ticaret ve Sanayi A.S., as well as United Juice Co., in July.

“Estimates are that 10 percent of foods are fraudulent,” Alisa Jijon, senior counsel at the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, said. “This is an old problem, and I’m not sure we’ll ever have a handle on it.”

USP, which develops standards for the quality and safety of medicines and foods, maintains a food fraud database that catalogs everything from cumin cut with peanut shells to peppercorns peppered with papaya seeds.

A key distinction in food fraud cases, Jijon said, is the intentional alteration of foods, as opposed to accidental adulteration by a supplier.

Seafood, for example, often takes a circuitous trip around the globe before it reaches U.S. shores, giving opportunities for unscrupulous suppliers to substitute a similar but lesser-quality fish, the lawyers said.

Detecting substitutions can be difficult, but they can pose life-threatening allergic reactions, as in cases of peanut shells added to cumin, Jijon said.

New regulations under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, however, may reduce fraud, Van Gundy said.

The law, which requires proactive measures by companies to protect U.S. food, includes rules for identifying “economically motivated adulteration” of foods.

The comments were given at a conference of the Food & Drug Law Institute in Washington.

To contact the reporter on this story: Steven M. Sellers in Washington at ssellers@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

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