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What is food fraud?

Strawberries from our Food Allergy Course

What is Food Fraud?

The Food Standards Agency defines food fraud as:

a dishonest act or omission, relating to the production or supply of food, which is intended for personal gain or to cause loss to another party

Food Standards Agency (FSA), the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU)

Food fraud can happen at any point along the food supply chain. It could be in the serving stage, preparation, harvest, or manufacturing. The technical term used within the industry is Economically Motivated Adulteration (EMA).

The most well-known account of food fraud is the famous horsemeat scandal, where people were sold, what they thought was beef but turned out to be, horse meat. The main reason why food fraud occurs is, quite simply, money. Companies want to make a larger profit so substitute a more expensive foodstuff for something cheaper but continue market it as the original product.

What food is susceptible to food fraud?


Other spices are also at risk but saffron (being very expensive) is the most susceptible. It is often masked using sandalwood dust, turmeric, starch, or coloured grass.


Organisations have committed food fraud by watering down milk to increase the overall quantity.

Fruit Juice

Again this product can be diluted to increase quantity. Orange juice is the most common example, using other fruit juices to dilute it but still maintain flavour. 


Honey can be diluted with sugar, corn syrup, or glucose. It’s also considered food fraud if honey is incorrectly labelled as “organic” or if its country of origin is misrepresented. 

Olive Oil

This product can be substituted for other cheaper cooking oils. 


Rather than being substituted with another product, coffee is often falsely claimed to originate in a particular country or that it is fair trade or organic when it’s not. 


Much like coffee, the origin of tea can be falsified but sometimes tea leaves may be reused and other things, like starch, can be added to bulk out the weight.


Sometimes fish might be claimed to be another, more expensive, species to make more money, as well as being falsely claimed as originating from another country. 

Why is food fraud bad?

Food fraud affects customers in a number of ways. 

Most importantly, it can have health effects; if food is falsely claimed to be something safe or if traces of foods that a person is allergic to aren’t listed (e.g. shellfish or nuts) then the results can be life-threatening. 

It can affect a person’s religious or philosophical beliefs; if meat is said to be kosher or halal or if it’s claimed to be vegetarian or vegan-friendly when it’s not, for example.

But at its core, even if there are no obvious negative consequences, it’s still an attack on a customer’s freedom and right to choose. We all have the freedom to choose what we consume, for any reasons we desire. Food fraud robs customers of this freedom to choose, tricking them into consuming something they might otherwise not have wanted to.

Common types of food fraud

Adulteration - This is where an external substance is added to the food to increase the quantity but reduce the quality. 

Substitution - Where the product is replaced with a similar substance that doesn't noticeably affect the way it looks or tastes. 

Diluting - Similar to adulteration but specific to liquids - another similar, cheaper liquid is added to a more expensive one.

Mislabelling or misrepresentation - Where a product is claimed to be something that it's not. Perhaps it's country of origin, it's level of freshness, or whether or not it’s organic.

Food Fraud and the law

There are different pieces of legislation that are relevant to food safety and hygiene. The Food Act 1990 is the main piece of legislation that provides a framework for all food regulations in England, Scotland & Wales. Under this Act, food organisations must make sure that the food they are selling is of the same quality and substance that customers expect. They must ensure that food is advertised, presented, and labelled to not mislead customers. 

The FSA (Food Standards Agency) and NFCU (National Food Crime Unit) help to prevent fraudulent activity. Committing food fraud can result in prosecution, fines, or even jail time.

Food Crime

The FSA defines food crime as 'serious and intentional dishonesty that impacts detrimentally on the safety or authenticity of food, drink, or animal feed.'

The NFCU have recognised 7 ways in which food crime can be committed:

  1. Misrepresentation - labelling and representing a product to incorrectly portray its quality, origin, or freshness
  2. Unlawful processing - processing meat (slaughtering or preparing) in unapproved premises or using unlawful techniques 
  3. Theft - dishonestly acquiring food, drink, or feed and profiting from their sale
  4. Document fraud - making, using, or possessing false documents with the intent to sell, market, or vouch for a substandard product
  5. Waste diversion - putting food/drink/feed that is intended for waste back into the food chain
  6. Substitution - replacing an ingredient with another substandard substance
  7. Adulteration - including a cheaper foreign substance to lower costs or fake a higher quality

Who is responsible for ensuring food crime doesn't happen?

Everyone at any stage of the food chain is responsible for preventing food crime. It can often be difficult to identify food fraud as it is can be similar to the real thing. Those receiving food deliveries are at higher risk of food fraud. Preventative measures can include ensuring that your suppliers are trusted and have control measures in place; those with the responsibility of sourcing food (from all industries) and suppliers should check these factors. 

You should carry out research and checks into an organisation before starting a partnership. Just one ingredient in a fraudulent food can lead to fines, prosecution, or jail time. 

Food Safety & Hygiene Training

Food fraud is a threat to food safety. Our Food Safety & Hygiene Certification Courses bundle is perfect for anyone who works where food is made, sold, or served. Our training provides a simple and effective solution to your training needs and helps you work towards compliance with legislation. Why not get started with a free trial today?

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