In 1906, the Federal Food and Drugs Act (then known as the Pure Food and Drug Act) was passed to prevent the sale, manufacture and transportation of adulterated or misbranded foods, medicines, drugs and liquor. With exposés like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair—which exposed the unregulated meat industry in the early 1900s—being dispersed to the general public, pressure and support had grown for federal regulation and oversight of food in the U.S.
In the years following this landmark approach to safer food, many other food regulations would be created to define what was or was not acceptable for safe and quality foods. However, despite over a hundred years of making continuous strides towards creating safer, more legitimate food products, new issues have evolved to challenge the system. Food fraud, motivated by economic gain, is one of them.
What is Food Fraud?
The food industry defines food fraud as “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)
In short, food fraud is a “knockoff for food.”
Through this broad definition, food fraud can occur at many points in the food chain—from production all the way to the point of purchase.
Why would anyone consider committing food fraud?
In some cases, individuals commit food fraud as a means of profit gain to remain marketable and relevant in the expanding global economy. In other cases, it may simply be that manufacturers are unaware of regulations. A few recent examples of food fraud include the following:
- In 2007, melamine was detected in pet food imported into the U.S.
- In 2008, melamine was detected in powdered infant formula in China.
- In 2009, a Salmonella outbreak was linked to peanut butter in the U.S.
- In 2013, horse meat was being sold as beef in the U.K.
- In 2016, fake olive oil was imported into the U.S.
Individuals responsible for intentional food fraud are almost always interested in one thing: economic gain. Their goals include getting a better price for their product over other competitors in the same or expanding markets. Their main intent is not necessarily to harm—but, as were the cases of contaminated infant formula in China and Salmonella outbreaks from peanut butter, the results can be deadly and impact consumer confidence across the globe.
What’s being done to detect (or deter) food fraud?
Collaboration and coordination among numerous organizations in the U.S. and abroad are working to address many aspects of food fraud through shared projects, initiatives and innovative technologies.
- In the U.S., food fraud databases are being developed by S. Pharmacopeia (USP).
- In addition, USP has developed a database that monitors thousands of ingredients.
- In the Netherlands, there’s ongoing university collaboration to combat food fraud through food fraud assessment and mitigation tools.
- Globally, 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 to manage adulterants in food.
- Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is another strategy implemented by governments to hold retailers accountable for information regarding the source of foods.
In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines for standards of identification defines the specifications of a food. These guidelines determine what a food can be called or named. For example, a jam or fruit preserve must meet certain specifications to be called a “jam” or “preserve.” The name is determined by weight of the fruit ingredients. Each jam or fruit preserve must have a specific measurement of no less than 65 degrees Brix to be call a jam or preserve. (In case you’re wondering, Brix is the concentration of sugar added to the solution for the desired product.)
Who knew that something as common as jams and jellies could be so complicated? It’s all to protect you and the food products you purchase every day. It ensures you are not buying a knockoff jam or jelly and that the product matches what’s on the label.
What can you do to ensure you’re buying the right product?
Food and nutrition experts suggest the following:
- Read the label to ensure that what you are buying is clearly identified on the product. Be aware of common foods that can become victims of fraud.
- Shop at trusted retailers and make a connection with the community of shoppers.
- Choose brands you know.
- If you suspect food fraud, report it to the retailer immediately.
Take the time to understand the basics of how food is produced and made available to you and your family. Along the way, you will begin to rely on the safeguards in place to detect food fraud—helping to ensure that actual grapes are in your grape jelly.
The article “Food Fraud: Fake Food or Just Fake News?” appeared in the December 15, 2019 edition of the Institute of Food Technologists’ Science Meets Food. This revision has been approved by the authors Nicole Arnold, PhD candidate and Lily Yang, PhD. FoodInsight.org has been granted permission to share the revision with you.