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  1. Compliance & Enforcement (Food)

Economically Motivated Adulteration (Food Fraud)

How to Report Food Fraud

If you suspect possible food fraud, you can:

  1. Call the FDA consumer complaint coordinator for your state.
  2. Submit a MedWatch Online form. You can submit information about product quality, labeling, packaging, and other concerns related to food fraud.

Economically motivated adulteration (EMA) occurs when someone intentionally leaves out, takes out, or substitutes a valuable ingredient or part of a food. EMA also occurs when someone adds a substance to a food to make it appear better or of greater value. For example, when manufacturers add a cheaper vegetable oil to an expensive olive oil but sell the product as 100% olive oil, they are cheating their customers. We refer to this type of EMA as food fraud.

Food fraud is a common type of EMA that the FDA deals with, but EMA also occurs with other products, including animal food and cosmetics. Some types of EMA are also misbranding violations.

Estimating how frequently food fraud occurs or its exact economic impact can be hard because food fraud is designed to avoid detection. Outside estimates by experts have found that food fraud affects 1% of the global food industry at a cost of about $10-$15 billion a year, although some more recent expert estimates put the cost as high as $40 billion a year.

EMA isn’t just an economic issue, though. Depending on what is added, substituted, or left out, food fraud can lead to health issues, some major, and even death. Some examples include lead poisoning from adulterated spices and allergic reactions to a hidden, substituted ingredient that contains even just one food allergen.

We work on several fronts to protect consumers from the potential health risks and economic harm from food fraud.

  • Honey and Maple Syrup: Even though their labels represented their food as a pure product, some unscrupulous companies have previously mixed honey or maple syrup with cheaper sweeteners such as corn syrup, rice syrup, sugar beet syrups, or cane sugar. This lowered the cost of production, but consumers still paid the full price of a pure honey or maple syrup product with the additional profit going to the companies.
  • Olive Oil: Similar to honey and maple syrup, some companies have previously diluted more expensive extra-virgin olive oil with less expensive vegetable oil but sold the mix as pure olive oil at a higher price.
  • Seafood: Seafood fraud often happens when someone substitutes a less expensive species of fish for a more expensive species, such as selling less expensive snappers (Lutjanus spp.) or rockfish (Sebastes spp.) for more expensive red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) in a food. See our Seafood Species Substitution and Economic Fraud page for more information. Another example is when a seller adds ice to frozen seafood to make it heavier before selling it by weight.
  • Juice: When manufacturers sell a mixture of citric acid, sweetener, and water as “100%” lemon juice or mix grape juice into their “100%” pomegranate juice, the consumer harm is mostly economic. However, when a company mixes expired, contaminated juice stored in dirty conditions with fresh juice in order to hide the low quality of the expired filthy juice, the resulting juice can possibly harm the person drinking it.
  • Spices: One type of spice fraud occurs when an expensive spice (such as saffron) is bulked up with other non-spice plant material (such as plant stems). Another type of fraud is using dyes to give spices a certain color, especially when the color strongly impacts the perception of quality. Lead-based dyes and other industrial dyes that can cause adverse health problems such as cancer have been found in spices such as chili powder, turmeric, and cumin.

Past Examples

  • Infant Formula: One way that scientists can estimate how much protein is in a food is by looking at how much nitrogen is present. In 2008, manufacturers in China added melamine (a synthetic chemical often used in plastics that has a high nitrogen content) to infant formula to make it seem like their products had enough protein. This led to kidney failure in babies, and news reports indicated the fraud caused over 300,000 illnesses, 50,000 hospitalizations, and at least 6 deaths.
  • Pine Nuts: During 2008 to 2012, some people reported a bitter metallic taste (“pine mouth”) that sometimes lasted for weeks after they ate pine nuts. After an international investigation, it appeared that some manufacturers substituted a non-food species of pine nuts in place of more expensive edible pine nut species.

Research Publications

Please go to our FDA Research Publications on Food Fraud page to see what our scientists have published on economically motivated adulteration in food.

Additional Resources


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