Is There Saltpeter in Your Saffron and Melamine in Your Milk?

By Veronique Greenwood | April 9, 2012 11:05 am

oilOlive oil tops the list of adulterated products.

You might think that the days when unscrupulous shopkeepers mixed food with plaster or ditchwater to boost profits are long gone, on the far side of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. You’d be wrong, though: more often than you’d like to think, companies cut corners by adulterating their products with other substances, sometimes killing customers in process.

Topping the list of most-frequently adulterated foods are olive oil, milk, honey, and saffron, according to a new database put together by the US Pharmacopeial Convention, the non-profit that sets standards for drug and food ingredients. Developed to help trace patterns in adulteration, the database includes more than a thousand cases from 1980 to 2010 and records exactly what the foods were mixed with and how the adulteration was detected, along with links to the press reports and scientific papers on each case.

foodA table showing the number of cases on record for each food.

Searching by food or by adulterant, you can get a sense of what’s going on with the top four. Most of the adulteration doesn’t seem immediately dangerous, merely fraudulent. Olive oil is most often mixed with cheaper oils made from soybeans, corn, hazelnuts, or rapeseed, which can be dangerous for people with allergies. Honey is diluted with cheap corn syrup and other sugars. Saffron is mixed with all manner of other substances, everything from sandalwood dust to saltpeter to gypsum. Out of the 194 cases of milk adulteration, most involved mixing extra proteins in or substituting a cheaper variety of milk for an expensive one, but 24 involved the chemical melamine, a toxic compound that makes milk register as more protein-rich on tests.

One of the most infamous cases of recent adulteration, in China in 2008, involved dairy products mixed with melamine. At least six babies died and 300,000 more sickened. Though that case didn’t spread beyond Chinese borders, adulterants are a global problem. The year before, melamine also cropped up in wheat gluten used in pet foods sold in the US, resulting in the deaths of many animals. The wheat gluten, it turned out, came from China, where food safety enforcement is notoriously lax.

As this case illustrates, issues with one country’s food can easily spread to others, and as more and more food is made from ingredients produced around the world, food safety agencies in the US and elsewhere will need to step up their game.

Image courtesy of Smabs Sputzer / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Teri Sims

    We trust our government to regulate our food in and out of our borders, but obviously it is not always enough.

  • Jacob Greene

    @ Teri:

    I’ve actually heard people use that as proof that the government should stay out of business. ::blinks::

    “Even when there are laws against these things and when the government tries to keep companies from putting that kind of stuff into our food, many companies still cheat! Thus, the government should back out and let them all do whatever they want.”

    I do not understand that logic.

  • badnicolez

    Some may trust our government to regulate our food, but I certainly don’t. Another great reason to eat local and organic as much as possible when you can’t grow your own.

  • Archwright

    @badnicolez You do realize that the term ‘organic’ is worth less than the ink used to print it unless a large organization, like a government, can enforce the definition.

  • Jacob Greene

    @ badnicolez:

    I am alright with someone wanting to exert more control on what they eat, and wanting to go beyond what the government does to verify that they are eating good food. But the government DOES need to provide a level of basic protection. I think it should be good enough to actually protect people, as well. If it’s not, then it needs to be strengthened.

    If someone wants to go even farther, I don’t see a problem. But if a basic part of life is, “Protect my family from the fact that most foods are dangerous,” then the government needs to step in.

  • Zach

    This is the second article in as many weeks that I have read about the FDA failing to enforce regulations. Perhaps a follow up article that investigates FDA enforcement tactics and funding levels would be warranted. Something is clearly broken, fixing it might cost money, as a taxpayer I am willing to take that risk.

  • savannahms

    Would love to know if this includes “certified organic” products or only those considered “conventional”.

    • Veronique Greenwood

      This includes organic products.

  • Max Menon

    I think if the law were changed to treat this the same as poisoning food … The perception would change in a hurry … As it should.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar