Trends in Organized Crime: Counterfeiting Food

You’ve heard of counterfeit money, counterfeit jewelry, and counterfeit medicine, but this might be a new one.

A shocking amount of counterfeit food made its way to dinner tables this year, according to a national database created to track this growing trend. Michigan State University’s John Spink, who is in charge of that database as Associate Director of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program, said that up to seven percent of the U.S. food supply is affected by food fraud.

He’s found that the likeliest suspects are olive oil, milk, honey, and fruit juice, all of which are frequently diluted with water or cheaper products like vegetable oil or corn syrup.

Olive oil, the substance found by Spink and his crew to be most often adulterated, has perhaps the longest known history of fraud of any product. The very earliest written mention of olive oil — in 24th Century B.C. – describes teams of royal inspectors touring olive mills to root out for fraudulent practices, author Tom Mueller, who wrote a book on olive oil contamination, said in a recent interview.

While these examples may seem relatively harmless, the scams can in fact be quite dangerous. Some of the chemicals in the additives have been proven dangerous, while others have been barely studied, so their affects are unknown. Some of the substances use to cut the supply include detergent in milk, and parchment or twigs ground up with coffee. Certainly, any food tainted with nut oils could prove deadly to an allergic consumer.

Non-perishables like oils and honey are most susceptible to fraud because their long supply chains and shelf lives cut down on traceability and therefore accountability. But many a bold counterfeiter has also made the foray into fresh food.

An investigation in Boston last year revealed that restaurants were replacing what they called "white tuna" with escolar, a cheap species of fish banned in Japan because it can make people sick. And just this week, Interpol and Europol conducted a massive, international raid that yielded 135 tons of counterfeit or mislabeled meat that authorities called "potentially harmful."

Since we recently saw how much damage counterfeit consumer goods can do when a string of methanol poisonings from bootleg liquor killed and blinded dozens in the Czech Republic, that warning rings especially true.