Food Fraud and Commonly Mislabeled Foods

Food fraud is the deliberate mislabeling of food products for financial gain with the intent of deceiving the consumer regarding what is actually in the package. The United States Pharmacopeial Convection (USP) reports that these acts of fraud have increased by 60 percent over the last year alone.

As a result of the growing number of cases of food fraud, a new database has been created to track faked food products called the Food Fraud Database. The database was recently used in a paper published by the Journal of Food Science to analyze which foods were most likely to be the subject of a fraud. According to the Journal of Food Science article, olive oil, milk,honey, and saffron are the most common foods that are tampered with by manufacturers.

So why is food fraud important? The biggest concern is potentially harming the health of consumers. This could occur in a number of ways, like exposing those with food allergies to items that could send them into anaphylaxic shock. Others are interested in avoiding
certain foods for dietary or religious reasons. In other cases, adulterated, diluted, or mislabeled food could increase the risk of mishandling, bacteria growth, and the introduction of harmful diseases. Food ingredients and additives are important to identify because they are used in so many food products and often do not present any easily identifiable characteristics. In other words, the consumer may not be able to tell what they are eating until it is too late.

Currently, the Food Fraud Database only has records of cases of food fraud dating from 1980 to 2012. Of course, that means that there is not yet any information about foods that are currently on the shelves, and no way to get ahead of the problem as new items come to market.


One of the biggest potential offenders of food fraud is honey. In several recent instances, investigators were unable to determine the origin of various store-bought honeys because they lacked any pollen. Usually, honey contains some amount of pollen, identifying the source of the honey, like honeysuckle, orange blossom, or avocado. In fact, honey that is so thoroughly filtered as to contain no pollen violates Food and Drug Administration guidelines regarding what can legally be called “honey.” In fact, there are other substances that are clearly not honey, like cane sugar with honeysuckle fragrance and food coloring added to it which is then formed into a block and sold as "honey.”

Faux honey makes up seven percent of food fraud cases, according to the study in the Journal of Food Sciences. 75 percent of honey revised in the study contained no pollen, meaning they were not technically honey under FDA regulations. The faux honey matter came to the public's attention after China began to ship the fake product to the Philippines for relabeling and export to America. The honey became contaminated with antibiotics that are illegal in the U.S. because of their potentially harmful side effects.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is also highly likely to be faked. According to the Food Fraud Database, 16 percent of olive oil is fraudulent. Extra virgin olive oil, usually claimed to be imported from Spain or Italy, often were not from those countries. Similarly, the oil was often diluted with other, cheaper oils, such sunflower oil and vegetable oil. In at least one recent case, what was supposed to be pure olive oil actually contained pig fat (lard).


This exotic and costly spice is also highly susceptible to adulteration. To mimic the color and texture, fraudsters have used tumeric, poppy petals, gypsum, and sandalwood dye. Other spices are commonly diluted with different types of lead, a dangerous substance no longer considered fit for human consumption.


Most assume the milk they are buying is cow's milk. But, adulterated food products have been found to include “faux milk,” a combination of oil, urea, detergent, caustic soda, sugar, salt, and skim milk powder. Faux milk, with its potentially dangerous cocktail of chemicals and lack of nutrients, was blamed for several deaths in China. Yet, this product still finds its way into American grocery stores on occasion.

Orange Juice

Juice producers have been known to put the juice of other fruits, such as lemons, grapefruits, and beets, into the mix. The flavor is often enhanced and protected by additives like potassium sulfate, corn sugar, and ascorbic acid. As a result, orange juice is one of the most frequently reported fraudulent foods.


Coffee has long been a victim of mislabeling. Much of it is not from the country identified on the label, like Columbia or Peru, but may be from other regions of the world where the bean is produced more cheaply. Instant coffee is even more prone to adulteration than beans, often having been mixed with cereals, starch, figs, and a number of other ingredients.


Since the days of bootlegging, and probably before, alcohol has been subject to tampering. In at least one recent case from 2012, vodka was found to have been mixed with anti-freeze and other harmful chemicals. Other alcohols have historically been mixed with a variety of chemicals to improve their yield and enhance their kick, even embalming fluid. Needless to say, since alcohol gains its intoxicating powers from what is, in essence, a somewhat mild poison, these adulterants can go unnoticed, attributed simply to drinking too much until the chemicals build up and result in serious injury or even death.


Fish is one of the most commonly tampered-with foods sold in the U.S., with over 60 percent of the fish labeled as "tuna" actually being some other type of fish. Indeed, some 84 percent of white tuna that was sold in Japanese restaurants that were the subject of the study were found to actually be escolar.

If you believe that you have been the victim of mislabeled food, you should contact an attorney. Many personal injury attorneys will handle these matters for you on a contingency basis, meaning you will not have to pay out-of-pocket for these legal services.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case.

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