Food fraud, the criminal activity of making profit by substituting expensive ingredients for cheaper ones, hit the headlines in Britain when the horsemeat scandal broke out in 2013. After retailers, such as Asda and Tesco, admitted to unwittingly selling horsemeat in the form of burgers, lasagne, and even diced meat, shocked consumers demanded a guarantee that it would never happen again. But the 2013 case was just the tip of the iceberg; as food fraudsters have increasing opportunities to break into supermarkets’ supply chains, consumers need to be aware of risks.

A growing, global problem

Fake food is being sold in alarming quantities around the world and recent findings show that the issue is on the rise. In March 2016, Interpol’s Operation Opson V lead the largest-ever seizure of fake food and drink; more than 10,000 tonnes and one million litres of hazardous products were seized in 57 countries. The confiscated items –all intended for sale in supermarkets- included tilapia that was found to be ‘unfit for human consumption’, diet powder drinks with modified expiration dates and over a thousand litres of fake whisky.

Although counterfeiting day-to-day consumer goods (like orange juice, or honey) may seem less lucrative than the trade of fake luxury products, for example, the food market provides many opportunities for criminals. As the production of food is increasingly a multinational, complicated and largely anonymous process, fraudsters can interfere at several stages without being caught. Consumer demand for cheap food and trivial penalties for criminals (the most drastic sentences being between one and two years) also contribute to the size of the problem. Food fraud is suspected in 5-10% of the world grocery trade and after the horsemeat scandal, PwC estimated the global fake food market to be worth $40 billion (£31 billion) a year.

Popular fake foods- and what consumers can do

While rare and expensive foods, such as Kobe beef, or manuka honey, are popular targets of fraudsters (an investigation found that only seven brands in UK supermarkets labelled as the priciest kind of honey were actually selling the real thing), fraud lurks behind cheaper products as well. Counterfeit fish is especially common; in 2010, a study revealed that 33% of fish samples in the United States were mislabelled. Olive oil is another example; shockingly, 80% of the Italian olive oil on the market is not genuine. Products falsely marked as ‘extra virgin’ are usually mixed with other oils, or can even be simple vegetable oil with added colouring and aroma.

While British food is classified as ‘generally safe’, the National Crime Unit established that around 20 crime groups are involved in fake food trade across the country. In addition, despite emerging hi-tech analytical methods (the most sophisticated ones using DNA and the amino acid sequences of proteins to determine the authenticity of a sample), monitoring food is not simple. Fraudsters often have detailed knowledge of the types of tests food can go through, helping them slip under the radar of screenings.

The best way to avoid buying counterfeits is by purchasing food from local producers, who operate very simple supply chains. When shopping in supermarkets, or ordering in restaurants, a price too good to be true is always a warning sign, as is seeing out-of-season products labelled as ‘fresh’.