A ketchup counterfeiting operation in New Jersey is making consumers think twice about what they’re putting on their food.
Officials discovered the fake ketchup factory after tenants complained about flies and rotten odors coming from another part of the 7,000-square-foot warehouse in Dover, N.J. They found thousands of plastic bottles labeled Heinz ketchup, many of which had exploded after being abandoned in the hot building.
Heinz representatives say that they think someone bought large containers of regular Heinz Ketchup and poured it into bottles labeled “Simply Heinz,” a higher-priced product made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Late Friday, they reached out to reassure consumers, saying that it was unlikely the counterfeit condiment ended up on store shelves.
“We have not discovered any information that leads us to believe that the illegally repackaged product is on the market. However, you can reach out to your store manager to confirm the product was purchased from Heinz,” Heinz representatives told Yahoo! Shine via Facebook. “We can assure you that product purchased directly from us is authentic and safe to purchase and consume. Our quality assurance systems also ensure traceability to the factories where Heinz Ketchup is manufactured and packaged.”
“The site of this operation was abandoned and had produced only a small quantity of bottles, much of which was still on site,” Michael Mullen, vice president of corporate & government affairs for Heinz, told the Star-Ledger in an e-mail
Needless to say, the warehouse was not the most sanitary of places, and there’s no way to know if anything else was added to the ketchup. The Warehouse was leased by Wholesome Foods, LLC; they could not be reached for comment.
“If you’re opening ketchup containers and pouring ketchup into other bottles, God knows what you’re diluting it with,” Don Schaffner, a food scientist at Rutgers University, told the Star-Ledger. “Ketchup is thick, so it’s possible you would not use a food-grade ingredient to replicate that texture. I can’t begin to imagine how bad it could be.”
The counterfeiters apparently didn’t know much about chemistry. Sugary liquid can ferment when left unattended in a heated area; a sealed bottle filled with fermented ketchup can explode if not stored properly.
Which is exactly what happened in the privately owned warehouse. The sweet, vinegary, tomatoey mess oozed and splattered everywhere, attracting a swarm of flies and creating a rotten smell that alerted other warehouse tenants, according to Dover Public Safety Director Richard Rosell.
Sanitation issues aside, why try to counterfeit ketchup in the first place? According to online grocer Peapod.com, regular Heinz ketchup costs about 6 cents per ounce; corn syrup-free Simply Heinz is 8 cents per ounce. (Maybe they meant to rip off organic food buyers instead? Heinz’s certified organic ketchup retails for about 20 cents an ounce.)
While such schemes are unusual for Heinz — they told Yahoo! Shine that “This is a rare and isolated incident, and not something we have faced in the U.S. in the past” — the company is concerned enough about the attempted counterfeiting that they’re working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigation to clear up the problem.
“We are working closely with health and law enforcement agencies to investigate this unauthorized repackaging operation,” Heinz representatives posted on Yahoo! Shine’s Facebook page. “As a company dedicated to food safety and quality, we will not tolerate illegal repackaging of our products. We have stringent manufacturing and packaging practices in place to ensure the safety of consumers. Our quality assurance systems also ensure traceability to the factories where Heinz Ketchup is manufactured and packaged.”
The ketchup caper is just the latest in food-related fakery. Olive oil, for example, is a kitchen staple that’s not always what it appears to be.
“It may just be a high-priced oil that’s diluted or mixed with inferior oil and passed off as the real thing,” explains Farnoosh Torabi of Yahoo! Finance.
Same with Balsamic vinegar, which may say “Made in Italy” on the label when it’s actually made with low-quality ingredients and then shipped to Italy for bottling. (Another tip: fake balsamic vinegar may contain caramel coloring, but the real stuff does not.)
An investigation last year by The Boston Globe found that most of the fish you find in restaurants and grocery stores are mislabeled, with cheap tilapia subbing for pricier red snapper and escolar (which is banned in Japan for making people sick) being sold as “white tuna.” And super-expensive Kobe beef isn’t legally available in the United States, so if you paid extra for a pricy Kobe steak, you got ripped off.