Economically motivated food adulteration, otherwise known as food fraud, has been a problem since the earliest days of industrialized agriculture and food production. Laws and methods of detection have evolved to curb the problem, but so have the fraudulent techniques used to deceive consumers. Now, economically motivated food fraud costs companies $10 to $15 billion a year (though some estimates suggest the impact is as high as $40 billion annually) — not to mention the costs on consumer health — which makes it a top concern for the food and beverage industry to overcome.  

Letting fraudulent ingredients into your operation can have a devastating impact on your company’s reputation, as well as on public health. Improving food safety begins with knowing the ingredients that are most vulnerable to economically motivated food adulteration, and more importantly, how to protect your operation from fraud. To help, the FDA has created a watch list of the most vulnerable ingredients and food products susceptible to adulteration.     

The 10 Products Most Vulnerable to Food Adulteration

Substituting or adulterating ingredients allows fraudsters to extend their product’s shelf life, or pass off low-quality goods as high-value ingredients, ultimately cutting down their production costs and inflating their profits.

Deceptive sellers will typically adulterate products that have a high market demand, suffer from price volatility, or have regulatory loopholes that incentivize fraud. It’s important to note that food fraud doesn’t always endanger public health, but some adulteration techniques create significant food safety issues. These are the 10 most common targets: 

  1. Honey and maple syrup are often diluted with sugar syrups to increase volume. 
  2. Olive oil is frequently adulterated with cheaper oils like soybean or palm oil. 
  3. Spices, including saffron, black pepper, turmeric, chili powder, and vanilla extract, are often cut with less expensive ingredients to increase weight or mimic color. In February, the FDA linked tainted cinnamon to an outbreak of elevated lead levels in children. Investigators believe the contamination was intentional to increase the weight and value of the spice. 
  4. Seafood is often intentionally mislabeled so less expensive species of fish are sold as more expensive ones. 
  5. Juice manufacturers can dilute high-value fruit juices, like pomegranate or blueberry, with cheaper juices or water. 
  6. Infant formula has been tampered with by deceptive manufacturers who've been caught adding chemicals to artificially meet nutritional requirements or change the presentation of the formula. 
  7. Pine nuts are a target because fraudsters can substitute a non-food pine nut species in place of high quality, edible pine nut species. 
  8. Milk and dairy have a long history of being adulterated with non-edible chemicals to improve appearance and texture, creating crises like the swill milk scandal of the 19th century. 
  9. Coffee and tea are susceptible, as sellers sometimes add fillers like chicory, cereals, and leaves to them to artificially increase the weight or volume of the product. 
  10. Organic foods are sometimes falsely marketed as organic to take advantage of higher price points without adhering to organic-farming standards. 

How to Combat Economically Motivated Food Adulteration

Economically motivated food fraud remains an ever-present threat as unscrupulous actors find new ways to deceive industry stakeholders, and often don’t get caught until members of the public suffer health consequences. Food and beverage manufacturers play a crucial role in preventing adulterated ingredients from entering the food supply. Here are four strategies: 

1. Develop and implement a Vulnerability Assessment and Critical Control Point (VACCP) Plan

Similar to how the HACCP framework helps workers assess food safety risks, VACCP plans provide a systematic approach to identifying and mitigating food fraud vulnerabilities. They involve assessing the likelihood and potential impact of food adulteration at various stages of production and distribution, and implementing control measures to prevent or minimize these risks. VACCP plans typically include risk assessment, control measures, monitoring procedures, and corrective actions to ensure the integrity and authenticity of food products. 

2. Test ingredients and supplies 

Manufacturers must regularly test the ingredients and supplies used in their products to ensure there is no adulteration or contamination prior to production. Since this can include chemical, physical, and biological testing, it’s helpful for stakeholders to understand the most common forms of food fraud for different ingredients so they can concentrate and streamline their screening processes. 

3. Monitor guidelines from food safety regulators and associations 

Maintaining food safety is ultimately a collective, industry-wide endeavor spanning the public and private sector, so many stakeholders share their knowledge and insights to help mitigate risks. Keeping up to date on current guidelines and recommendations from food safety organizations — like the Food Standards Agency, the Food Industry Intelligence Network, or the Food Authenticity Network, to name a few — can help manufacturers stay informed about emerging risks and best practices for preventing food fraud. 

4. Collaborate with third-party consultants 

Consultants who specialize in food safety and food defense will have valuable, high-level insight about risk factors and mitigation. Leveraging their expertise can help manufacturers develop more tailored strategies and effective preventive measures to safeguard their supply chain.  

Learning to Detect and Deter Food Fraud 

Oversight agencies are stretched thin, given the popularity of food trucks, pop-up restaurants, and evolving regulations. Add in the inflationary pressures across the industry to cut costs and you'll see why conditions are ripe for a new wave of food fraud. 

Food and beverage manufacturers need to act with more vigilance today than ever before to protect their customers, their reputation, and the integrity of their industry as a whole. Learn more about the food defense strategies that work in our Food Fraud Online course. 

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