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Food fraud

Article showing how traceability helps prevent food fraud.

Food fraud is committed when

‘food is illegally placed on the market with the intention of deceiving consumers, usually for financial gain’ [1].

It can result in significant health risks and can affect the nutritional quality of foods. This may lead to consumers losing confidence in both the food industry and in the ability of governments to keep them safe [2].

Food fraud can include a number of different criminal activities such as food counterfeiting, substitution, mislabelling, dilution, and adulteration. Moreover, adulteration and dilution are practices that have been around for centuries and some of the earliest food laws were attempts to protect consumers from these activities.


The ‘cooking oil disaster’ was a famous counterfeiting food fraud carried out in Spain in 1981 which caused the most devastating food poisoning in modern European history [3]. The contamination is believed to have occurred when industrial colza oil from France was imported into the country and then refined and sold by street vendors as olive oil. Consumers became ill with ‘toxic oil syndrome’, which was similar to a lung infection, weakened immune systems and skin problems. This event caused the death of over 1,000 people and more than 25,000 were seriously injured [3].

Substitution and mislabelling

The well-known horsemeat fraud is an example of food substitution and mislabelling, first detected in frozen beef burgers in Ireland in early 2013 and then subsequently found in beef‐labelled ready meals in the UK and many other EU countries. Some products were found to contain up to 100% horsemeat [4]. This incident showed up a major breakdown in traceability of sources in the food supply chain and there was a concern that harmful ingredients like phenylbutazone, a veterinary drug used as a painkiller for horses, could have passed into the counterfeited meat and affected humans. Later, DNA tests revealed that around 0.5% of horse carcasses were contaminated with phenylbutazone [2]. However, the horsemeat was particularly problematic in countries like the UK and Ireland where horses are not commonly eaten and are treated as pets, as well as in Jewish communities which consider eating horsemeat sinful [5]. Products containing horse meat are safe to eat and consumed by many other countries such as Italy or France. The ‘horsemeat scandal’ did not result in a risk to public health, the issue of this incident was that these products were labelled as containing beef, not horse meat.

In March 2013, the European Commission launched a five‐point plan to restore consumer confidence in the wake of the horsemeat affair, and food fraud issues became part of the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). The RASFF is a database that facilitates the exchange of information between countries on consignments of food and feed when risks to human health are identified allowing food safety authorities to trace and withdrawn products from the market [6]. Tighter controls on horse passports were also proposed to ensure that only drug‐free animals enter the food chain. Each passport contains identity details and lists any veterinary medicines (eg, phenylbutazone) administered [7].


Food dilution is when additional ingredients are added to the original food product to increase its quantity. A case of food dilution was discovered in 2016 when the European Commission found that about 20% of imported honey did not meet EU standards because it had been mixed with syrups to increase its volume. The imported honey was much cheaper than the honey produced in the EU as a result [8]. On 1 March, the European Parliament adopted a series of initiatives to protect and support the European beekeeping sector, like increasing the number of funds for national beekeeping programmes, improving bee health and protecting local and regional bee varieties by banning harmful pesticides [9].


A tragic example of food adulteration occurred in China in 2008, when about 54,000 babies were hospitalised and six died from kidney stones because they were fed with infant formula which was adulterated with melamine [10]. Sanlu company, a state-owned enterprise based in Xinhua District, which was found to be responsible, was ordered to halt production and an estimated 9,000 tons of product were recalled [11]. Even today, Chinese families mistrust infant formulas produced in China which has given foreign companies an opportunity to dominate the market [12].

At the time, and in order to protect European citizens, Commission decided that all products originating from China and containing more than 15% of milk as an ingredient must be checked for the presence of melamine and products containing more than 2.5 mg/kg are to be immediately destroyed.

Thanks to RASFF, many food safety risks had been adverted before they could have been harmful to European consumers. The data on the notifications by the EU countries are analysed and presented by country, type of food and type of hazard at an annual report and there is a RASFF consumer’s portal available for consumers with latest information on food recalls and public health warnings in all EU countries.


Can you share examples of food frauds that have affected your country? How effectively were they addressed?

© EIT Food
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Understanding Food Labels

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