Do you know what''s on your plate?

For the Daily
Published September 26, 2001

Food adulteration, sounds dirty doesn"t it? Well if you"ve never heard this term before, food adulteration is the use of inferior and cheaper ingredients to cheat consumers and out compete the competition. Although food adulteration has its roots in Victorian England, modern science is helping to make sure today"s consumers get what they pay for.

According to Professor Anthony S. Wohl of Vassar College, the Victorian English were notorious for food adulteration and claims that much of the food consumed by the working class family was adulterated by foreign substances, contaminated by chemicals, or fouled by animal and human excrement. The poisonous chemical additives include: strychnine and cocculus inculus (both are hallucinogens) in rum and beer, copper sulfate in pickles, bottled fruit and wine, iron sulfate in tea and beer, lead chromate in mustard and snuff, lead sulfate and mercury bisulfate in confectionary sugar and chocolate and lead in wine and cider.

These chemicals were widely used and accumulated over a long period in peoples bodies resulting in chronic gastritis and often in fatal food poisoning.

Today, however, the adulterants are rarely a health hazard. Ben Canas, a food adulterant chemist in the Food and Drug Administration"s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition says that one reason the FDA exists is due to the 1938 federal law that was partly enacted due to public concerns about the use of water to adulterate foods such as milk. Currently, the FDA is assisting industry and consumers by developing sophisticated laboratory tests and compiling computerized pictorial databases so they know whether the products they purchase are what they claim to be.

The FDA is informed about most food adulteration cases by food industry members, often because they become suspicious of products being priced below the normal market value. Companies also commonly test incoming food ingredients in a lab to verify that they are getting what they paid for. In these labs chemists use tests such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify unique characteristics that can be used to distinguish one substance from another.

Some supermarkets even adulterate food in order to make extra profit. Dateline NBC conducted an investigation in 1998 to determine if what was being sold as pure ground beef was really that. They submitted 100 samples from different stores to an USDA recognized lab with 29 of those samples testing positive for meats other than ground beef. Even health food stores like Fresh Fields and Wild Oats sold adulterated ground beef.

Dateline reconducted this study in 1999 and again testing 100 stores, including the 29 that were guilty of adulteration previously. The 29 stores passed the test this time and 7 other stores tested positive for adulteration. The ground beef at a Market Basket in Boston contained approximately 24 percent pork and a Butera store in Chicago had approximately 36 percent pork in supposedly 100 percent pure ground beef.

Even sophisticated DNA analysis, which is normally used for biological research, is used in testing for adulterated food. In New Orleans where turtle meat soup is a delicacy, DNA testing revealed that some of the so-called turtle meat is actually from another reptile, the American alligator. Since alligators have now recovered from near extinction and protective measures have been lifted, they are farmed and hunted so that their meat fetches a lower price that that of turtles.

It appears that as science develops new ways to detect food adulteration, consumers will ultimately profit since they will know exactly what they are buying.