This isn’t exactly a new problem. A 2016 report by the group Oceana alleged that as much as 20% of international seafood is mislabeled. In other words, it isn’t the kind of fish the label says it is.
Businesses can get a bad name when a counterfeiter appropriates their logo or brand to market an inferior product, though those cases are rare. All too often, an adulterated product competes with the real thing, but since the knock-off sells for much less, legitimate companies are at a competitive disadvantage. There can also be health risks to consumers.
“While most fraudulent food is bought and consumed without being detected, there can also be health risks associated with buying fake food where, in extreme cases, there may be substances included that are unfit for human consumption,” Frank Woods, a retail specialist at NFU Mutual, told ConsumerAffairs.
“There is also the risk of a person becoming ill when eating a product that contains unidentified allergens, or through contaminated food that is out of date.”
Getting around the rules
There are rules in place to prevent “fake” food products from reaching the market, but the report says there are many ways around them, including falsified or inaccurate documentation. Internet sales have also made it easier to get fake food on the market.
While the problem of food counterfeiting and mislabeling has always been around, it seems to have gotten worse in recent years. Last year an Interpol and Europol joint task force seized more than 10,000 tons of fake food and more than a million liters of counterfeit beverages, including liquor, in 57 countries.
The task force discovered almost nine tons of sugar contaminated with fertilizer in Sudan. In Italy, it seized 85 tons of olives that had been painted with copper sulfate solutions to deepen their color.
The definition of fake food is broad. It not only includes pasting a well known company’s logo on a counterfeit product, it also includes food that contains unlisted additives or misidentifying ingredients altogether. For example, Interpol agents seized a shipment of peanuts that had been repackaged and relabeled as pine nuts, posing a lethal threat to consumers with severe peanut allergies.
“Fake and dangerous food and drinks threaten the health and safety of people around the world who are often unsuspectingly buying these potentially very dangerous goods,” Interpol’s Michael Ellis said at the conclusion of the investigation.
Just last month, the owner of a European food company was sentenced in connection for selling 30,000 tons of horse meat as beef. The NFU Mutual Food Fraud Report suggests these and other cases of fake food are taking a toll on consumer confidence.
In polling more than 2,000 consumers, the NFU researchers discovered one third are less trusting of products and retailers than they were five years ago. Only 9% said their trust has risen.
Spotting a fake
Counterfeit foods can be hard to spot, but buying recognized brands from reputable retailers can reduce your chances of getting stuck with a fake. Buying fresh produce may also be safer, since whole foods are harder to adulterate.
Read the list of ingredients carefully. If the description says something like “aroma of…” or “essence of…,” it might not be the real thing. According to BonAppetit.com, the ingredients label might list “vanillian” instead of “vanilla,” hoping you won’t notice.
The easiest food products to counterfeit are essentially those that can be adulterated without changing the appearance. For instance, olive oil can be diluted with vegetable oil and still look the same. Cheese and fish are also easily mislabeled because most consumers can’t easily distinguish them.
“It is very difficult for consumers to be able to detect fraud, but by encouraging and supporting those businesses that do seem to be transparent and put fighting fraud to the forefront of what they do, they also inspire a healthy and sincere market,” Woods said.
Woods says any success enjoyed by food counterfeiters just makes them stronger, putting legitimate food companies at more of a disadvantage.