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Food Fraud | When Does Food Become Criminal?

The modern consumer wants to know about the food they're buying - is it organic, is it vegan, is it GMO? Food producers give us their answers, but how do we know whether we can trust them?

When you pick up a product in a supermarket, you might check the label to see its nutritional content, whether it is organic, or whether it contains something you are allergic to. We do this so often that it becomes routine, and we usually take the information on our food at face value - but can we always trust what we read on the packet? Occasionally, we might be the unwitting victims of so-called ‘food fraud’.

What is food fraud?

Put simply, food fraud is when someone intentionally alters either food or its supply chain to profit financially. It is that intent to profit that separates food fraud from failures in food safety and food quality. As an act of deception, food fraud involves deliberately violating rules laid down by countries or overarching bodies like the EU.1 

Though it’s often invisible to shoppers, food fraud is a serious problem. Despite only being identified as a defined concept by academics in 2011,2 today’s estimates of the global financial cost of food fraud range from $6.2 billion to a massive $40 billion per year.3 And when food fraud threatens public health, there can be a human cost too - for example in the 2008 melamine milk scandal in China, six infants died and just over 50,000 were hospitalised due to milk that had been deliberately adulterated to cut costs whilst still passing quality control tests.4

What does food fraud look like?

Modern food supply chains are long and complex, and there are opportunities for fraud at every step - from food production and packaging to the way in which products are distributed and sold. 

1. Illegally adding, diluting or substituting ingredients

First, illegal alterations to the food itself - such as diluting or substituting ingredients with lower-quality replacements, concealing the addition of ingredients or adding unapproved enhancements - would be classified as food fraud. Ultimately, this is usually done whilst trying to switch an expensive ingredient for a cheaper one, thereby reducing costs and boosting profits.5 

Tinkering with olive oil is the archetypal example of this: Roman scholars such as Galen document how merchants would mix high-quality olive oil with cheaper ingredients such as lard.6 Today, olive oil is fraudulently mixed and substituted with cheaper oils such as sunflower, rapeseed and soybean oils.7

2. Mislabeling or tampering with food packaging

Next comes probably the most commonly committed form of food fraud, found in markets and shops across the globe - mislabelling or tampering with food packaging. Often, it’s a smudging of the truth, such as repackaging meat after the expiration date has just passed. Counterfeit products - where all aspects of a product, both the food and the packaging, are faked - also fall into this category. For example, in Victorian England, tea became extremely popular in a short space of time. This surge in demand, coupled with a lack of knowledge about the product, led to fraudsters selling fake tea to unsuspecting customers. Historians estimate that at least eight factories in 1845 London were dedicated to the drying out and repackaging of used tea leaves so they could be resold illegally.8

3. Stolen, overrun or diverted foods

Finally, food fraud can also happen as food is distributed. Food can be stolen and subsequently sold on grey markets, or products can be diverted in transit and sold in areas or countries where they were never intended to be. Otherwise, completely legitimate products can also become fraudulent based on the way they are distributed - for example, food products that are illicitly produced in excess (so-called ‘overrun products’) are in themselves highly authentic but should not have been either produced or sold: doing so is often in breach of production agreements. 

Does food fraud affect you?

Unfortunately, most of us have probably fallen victim to food fraud at least once since some of the most commonly defrauded products are highly popular ones. Here are two examples.

1. Not-So-Extra Virgin Olive Oil
In 2015, seven of Italy’s major olive oil companies were found to be selling fake extra virgin olive oil. Major brands like Lidl, Deoleo and Coricelli saw their products officially demoted from ‘extra virgin’ to ‘virgin’ oils following tests, and these products were subsequently pulled from shelves. In exchange for misleading customers, many of these producers also received hefty fines of nearly €1 million.9

2. Honey Laundering
Honey is another popular but commonly defrauded food. Australia is one of the world’s biggest producers of organic honey, but a 2018 study discovered that almost 20% of Australian honey in its stores was adulterated, including honey from some of the country’s most reputed producers that was labelled as “organic”.10 Manuka honey is also regularly defrauded, with the same study showing over ten times as much “Manuka” honey is sold in a year than was actually produced. 

How can we prevent food fraud? 

Where there is an opportunity, criminals - both opportunistic and organised - will shortly follow, and our food supply chains are no exception. In the 2011 paper which first defined ‘food fraud’, co-author Dr Moyer highlighted the challenge of rooting out bad actors in our food supply chains: 

“When you’re talking about perpetrators, they’re not just a bad bug that naturally grows. In fact they are funded, they’re stealthy and they don’t want to be discovered. ” 

Many food safety organisations and regulators have recognised food fraud as a serious problem and have made preventing it a top priority - but so far, few have actually laid out concrete practices and processes to do so. 

Food producers and farmers can play a key part in preventing food fraud by making things more difficult for fraudsters. Making a risk assessment of how vulnerable product ingredients are to fraud, and putting measures in place to ensure the ingredients used are genuine, can go a long way in keeping fraudsters at bay -  but this requires food producers to have a clear understanding of their supply chain, which isn’t always the case. It also becomes difficult for some food producers to tackle food fraud themselves as many can’t afford the significant costs of proactively tackling it, especially when there are rarely incentives to help them. 

Fighting food fraud with technology 

Of course, technology can also play a role in stopping food fraud. Blockchain could change the way we track food through the supply chain, helping us place more trust in where it comes from and how it was made.12 Meanwhile, fast, cheap and high-capacity testing for food fraud is now more sophisticated than ever. For example, DNA testing was critical to uncovering the horsemeat scandal of 2013, where over one-third of the “beef” burgers tested by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland contained traces of horse DNA.13

Read more about how blockchain could improve our food system.

But testing alone can’t prevent food fraud - it can only identify it after the fact. By the time it was discovered, horsemeat had already thoroughly infiltrated the UK and Irish burger markets. Luckily, horsemeat is relatively harmless to humans, but were the same fraud to occur with a potentially lethal allergen like peanut shells, the human cost could have been immense before testing revealed the truth. 

On top of that, it’s not possible to test every food product, and fraudsters are constantly adapting and using technology of their own to evade detection. So testing alone isn’t the answer, and technology may only take us so far. In fact, Prof Louise Manning from the Royal Agricultural University in the UK believes that it’s all of our responsibility to fight food fraud:

“Food fraud will only be addressed by increasing awareness of these issues, and businesses and individuals heeding the warning, “caveat emptor”, buyer beware.” 

Building trust in our food

This suggests an alternative approach - engaging consumers with the issue of food fraud and building awareness of the problem. For companies, this means walking a fine line: a heavy-handed approach can scare consumers away, even when there’s no fraud taking place, while not addressing the issue at all can make it look like companies have something to hide.

And while building trust is important, protecting that trust is critical. A scandal - even if the cause was accidental - can sow distrust and fear among loyal customers, damaging industries immensely.  According to Dr Moyer, when misplaced trust is put into products that turn out to be fraudulent,  industries lose swathes of customers overnight - and 25% of them will never come back. 

The impact of broken trust shouldn’t be underestimated, especially as shoppers become more capable and willing to hold fraudulent producers to account. For example, Belfast-based company Cibus Analytical is developing tools that will allow customers to test the authenticity of their food themselves at home.14 With the power to drive change shifting to the hands of individual consumers, it’s firmly in everyone’s best interests to ensure businesses produce authentic, honest food.15

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