6 Tips to Avoid Becoming a Victim of ‘Food Fraud’

Food fraud can be hard to swallow — and dangerous to your health. Here are six ways to spot foods that may have added or substituted substances.


Concerns over tax identity theft and medical identity theft often make headlines. But cases of another potentially deadly type of fraud have accumulated more quietly.

This kind of fraud can cause allergic reactions, food poisoning and other illnesses — resulting occasionally in deaths.

It’s informally known as “food fraud.” In some instances, the practice is relatively harmless, such as passing off a cheaper fish fillet as a more expensive species.

But other examples can be more dangerous, such as the decision by a company in China several years ago to add chemicals to diluted baby formula to boost its protein content. That incident led to the deaths of several Chinese infants.

According to a 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service, the federal government has yet to establish a statutory definition for “economically motivated adulteration” (EMA), a term often used interchangeably with “food fraud.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has adopted a working definition, however:

“Fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production, i.e., for economic gain.”

To help you avoid becoming an unwitting victim of food fraud, we’ve compiled the following tips.

1. Understand that food fraud is relatively common in the U.S.

In nearly 30 percent of all food-fraud incidents, the fraudulent products were produced in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service report.

After the U.S., the greatest number of incidents involved products from China (about 14 percent) and India (about 13 percent).

Food fraud incidents in other countries severely impact U.S. consumers, according to the publication Food Safety News, because the food industry has become globalized over the past decade.

2. Know which food categories are associated with food fraud

Reports of fish and seafood fraud are by far most common in a food-fraud database maintained by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota.

Fraud involving dairy products and oils/fats came in second and third, respectively.

According to a 2012 article in the Journal of Food Science, reports of olive oil fraud were the most common type of fraud listed in a database maintained by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, a nonprofit organization that (among other things) sets standards of ” identity, strength, quality and purity” for food ingredients. The FDA enforces these standards in the United States.

Fraud involving milk and honey came in second and third, respectively.

Both databases date back to 1980.

3. Avoid processed foods when possible

This helps you ensure the integrity of your food.

For example, the National Center for Food Protection and Defense states that it’s much easier to make fraudulent apple juice than a fraudulent apple.

4. Be skeptical of rock-bottom prices

If it sounds too good to be true — well, you know what they say.

The National Center for Food Protection and Defense says that a fair market price reflects quality and care, and the nonprofit National Consumers League says “there is a chance” the cheapest price reflects adulteration.

5. Buy from reputable brands and sources

Buying generics is a great way to save money. But when it comes to food, consider brand names if you have doubts about a product’s authenticity.

Brand-name companies generally have a vested interest in protecting their reputations because they’ve invested a lot into their brands.

6. Do a little homework

Spend a few minutes online before shopping for a type of food that is commonly adulterated.

Try searching the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention’s Food Fraud Database. Familiarize yourself with the latest incidents of adulterated fish, for example, if you plan to purchase fish.

Doing an Internet search for food fraud in a particular food category might also reveal resources regarding particular types of food fraud.

For example, I never purchase olive oil without first visiting journalist Tom Mueller’s website Truth in Olive Oil.

Mueller authored “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” and the book’s complementary website includes a buyer’s guide to olive oil. It also includes a section on supermarket oils that has a list of olive oils that Mueller says offer good quality at a good price.

What are your thoughts on the potential for food fraud in your daily life? Let us know what you think in the “Comments & discussion” section below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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