Food Fraud: Fake Food, or Just Fake News?


In 1906, the Federal Food and Drugs Act (Pure Food and Drug Act) was passed to prevent the sale, manufacture, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded foods, medicine, drugs, and liquor. With exposés like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair – which exposed the rampant and gross negligence of the early 1900s unregulated meat industry – being dispersed to the general public, pressure and support had grown for federal regulation and oversight of food in the U.S.. In the following years, many other food regulatory acts would follow that would continue to define what was or was not acceptable for safe and quality foods and beverages (i.e.: Federal Meat Inspection Act, Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, etc.). However, even with over a hundred years of making continuous strides towards creating safer, more legitimate food products, misbranding and food fraud are still prevalent issues in the ever-shifting food system.

The Jungle By: Upton Sinclair

In 2008, a scandal broke amidst the food world revealing melamine, a compound which analytically reads as increased nitrogen content and was added to artificially spoof as “apparent protein content” (but is actually dangerous), was discovered to have adulterated powdered infant formula produced in China. Incidentally, in 2007, melamine had also been found to contaminate pet food in the U.S. from China-exported products. In total, melamine-contaminated products were exported to 47 countries around the world. The incident affected ~300,000 Chinese infants and young children with six reported deaths. Consequently, the Chinese government seized over >2T of milk powder and recalled an excess of 9T of milk powder with 22 manufactures being implicated as promoting this practice. Come 2013, a similar  uproar raged across the European meat industry cascading from the discovery that horse meat was being sold as beef. Even more recently, there has also been a renewed outrage over the standard of identity and quality of olive oil. A report by the UC Davis Olive Center estimated that >70% of extra-virgin olive-oil imported into the U.S. was adulterated or mislabeled, much of this possibly compounded by a “race to the bottom” for prices. Even the sourcing of foods labeled as farm-to-table is under scrutiny! Throughout history, and across the globe, the pervasive nature of food fraud, food adulteration, and food counterfeit has not only detrimentally affected the food system; but, its prevalence has negatively impacted the lives and well-being of countless individuals all while eroding consumer trust in science, the food industry, and regulation. So what really is food fraud? What incentives drive some organizations or businesses to commit food fraud? And what is being done to combat this detrimental issue, now?

“Food fraud is the deception of consumers through intentional adulteration of food: (a) by substituting one product for another; (b) using unapproved enhancements or additives; (c) misrepresenting something (e.g.: country of origin); (d) misbranding or counterfeiting; (e) stolen food shipments and/or; (f) intentional contamination with a variety of chemicals, biological agents or other substances harmful to private- or public- health. (FSNS, 2016). Through this broad definition, food fraud can occur at many points in the food chain; nowadays, in a more interconnected world, food fraud can occur at any point from the production process, to the import/export process, to the purchase point. So why would a company even consider committing food fraud? In some cases, food companies intentionally commit food fraud as a means of profit gain. In other cases, there is the necessity to stay marketable and relevant in a cut-throat market. On the other hand, it may simply be that they themselves may be unaware of the regulations.

Melamine tainted milk being discarded, olive oil,

Globally, there are various initiatives and organizations seeking to address some of the issues previously stated. Together, PwC, SSAFE, and universities in the Netherlands have collaborated in developing food fraud assessment and mitigation tools to combat food fraud. Additionally, USP has developed a Food Fraud Database which monitors thousands of ingredients. Other initiatives like the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the Food Fraud Initiative led through Michigan State University, and the Safe Food Initiative all seek to provide resources for dealing with food fraud. One stop-gap used to ensure accurate representation of food products in the United States is through the FDA’s guidelines for standards of identification found in the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, which defines the specifications of a food for it to be called a food a specific name. For example, a jam or fruit preserve must meet certain specifications, as outlined by CFR Section 150.160, in order to be delineated as a “jam” or “preserve”: “[i]n the case of a fruit ingredient consisting of a Group I fruit [blackberry, blueberry, strawberry, cherry, etc.] or a permitted combination exclusively of Group I fruits, 47 parts by weight of the fruit ingredient to each 55 parts by weight of the saccharine ingredient; and (ii) in all other cases, 45 parts by weight of the fruit ingredient to each 55 parts by weight of the saccharine ingredient.” Additionally, a finished jam or fruit preserve product must have a measurement of no less than 65 degrees Brix (cite). Who knew that jellies could be so complicated? This complexity, though, ensures consumers are receiving a product that matches the label.

To expand on this, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is another strategy implemented by governments to hold retailers accountable for information regarding the source of foods. However, due to international pressure and looming American budget issues, as of January 2016, COOL is no longer required. The original regulation for labeling still resulted in some foods being marketed as originating from a specific geographic region when they were in fact not. Regulations for fish and shellfish became effective in 2005 and the final rule for all other covered commodities, was finalized in 2009. This USDA blog post explains how fish can be labeled as both “Alaskan” and “Product of China” arising from differences in where foods are grown or caught versus where they are actually processed. Even now, Oceana USA continues to study the prevalence of seafood fraud through mislabeling.

Country of origin labeling laws example

Although many of the food fraud cases represent very legitimate concerns, there are just as many cases in which misinformation creates a platform for the over-exaggeration of food concerns. In 2016, public attention fixated on the supposed presence of “wood pulp” in parmesan cheese. While accusations framed the food industry for knowingly using wood pulp as a filler, other sources like the Huffington Post clarified the outrage with scientifically-backed safety information that showed cellulose, a widely accepted food additive, was the actual ingredient found in parmesan cheese, and not wood chips (which is oftentimes the image conjured when thinking of cellulose). Unfortunately, misrepresentation by the media is also reflected in FDA’s “defect action levels. While the FDA allows for unavoidable, minor contamination, the media often warps these allowances into a negative, fear-mongering narrative about the ‘unreasonable’ levels of whole bugs and rat feces permitted to be in food products. Because some food commodities literally get plucked out of fields and have been exposed to outdoor elements, it is reasonable to believe they may not be perfectly sterile. For example, crushed oregano may contain an average of 300 or more insect fragments per 10 grams.

Parmesan Cheese

How do we tease these accusations apart from cases of pseudoscience with genuine concerns over food fraud? The rise of pseudoscience is often linked to the continued presentation of misinformation and lack of education. Transparency and educational efforts from food companies is crucial as there continues to be mistrust displayed by consumers when it comes to the food industry. While those of us in the food science world understand that foods are regulated more today than they ever have been, it is up to us to disseminate that message to the general public. Let’s be honest, use your head when you’re reading food fraud stories; do remember, not everything you read is 100% accurate nor unbiased.

So friends, what are your thoughts on food fraud? Have you seen something in the media that has made you worried or scared about your food being adulterated? Let us know below!

References linked throughout

Science Meets Food

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