APRIL 26, 2008: Shoppers are being ripped off to the tune of £7 billion a year as cheap food is passed off as top-quality produce, it is claimed.

There is mounting evidence of battery farm eggs being sold as free range, farmed fish passed off as wild and inferior meat labelled as organic, according to the study by consumer group Which? There is also evidence that premium products are being adulterated to boost profits. As much as 10 per cent of food sold through high street grocers and restaurants is not what it seems, says the group.It also raises the alarm over GM ingredients finding their way into the national diet – without being declared – through rice, soya and cooking oils.News of the large-scale fraud came as it emerged some stores in the United States are introducing rice rationing because of spiralling costs.Prices in Thailand, the world’s top exporter, have trebled since the start of the year to $1,000 a ton.High-value products are the most likely to be chosen for food fraud.For example, wild salmon will cost 40 per cent more than the farmed equivalent, while free-range eggs are around 80 per cent more expensive than those from battery farms.It is also profitable to substitute cheap alternatives for foodstuffs that are in short supply, such as free-range eggs, organic vegetables, basmati rice, extra virgin olive oil, buffalo mozzarella cheese and arabica coffee beans.Alcohol, such as vodka, is also being counterfeited and the consequences can be more serious than a financial loss. High levels of methanol in counterfeit versions can cause blindness and death.The allegations of food fraud stretch from independent takeaways to national supermarkets, school canteens and leading restaurants.Which? claims that a huge number of shoppers are being duped into paying over the odds for suspect food.”The level of food fraud in the UK has been estimated at about 10 per cent, or £7billion a year, but the true extent is impossible to gauge,” a spokesman said.”Food fraud is not always obvious. It is not easy for consumers to spot when a premium product has been substituted or mixed with a cheaper one or when a label lies about its origin.”She added: “Unscrupulous fraudsters have developed new ways to fool consumers and increase profits.”Apart from health risks, the most serious effect of food fraud on consumers is financial. Paying £10 for what you believe to be an organic, free-range chicken that is actually a battery-farmed bird that you could have bought for £2 leaves you considerably out of pocket.”

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