Experts estimate that as much as 10 percent of food that is purchased in the developed world is adulterated. To make extra profit, food counterfeiters may add cheap fillers, use less of an authentic ingredient, or mislead customers about the ingredients or origin of food and drinks. The Food Fraud Database tracks instances of counterfeit foods, which can cause food allergies, poison unsuspecting customers with toxic ingredients, and corrupt the food supply, and these nine foods are frequently on the target list.
Counterfeit cheese may be mislabeled, contain too much filler, or actually be a cheaper cheese masquerading as a more expensive kind. In Russia, 78 percent of cheese sold in grocery stores in 2015 was reportedly counterfeit. Cheese counterfeiters in Russia, France, and Switzerland use processed palm oil (an ingredient that doesn’t belong in authentic cheese) instead of milk. And in 2012, the FDA uncovered a cheese factory in Pennsylvania that put higher-than-allowed amounts of cellulose (wood pulp) in its Parmesan cheese. Neal Schuman, the CEO of a fourth-generation family cheese company in New Jersey who has worked to put trust and guarantee labels on authentic cheese products, told Bloomberg Business that with grated cheese, "less than 40 percent of the product was actually a cheese product."
Honey launderers mislabel cheap honey to make it look like a more premium product or add cheap ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup or rice sugar to the honey. In the process, antibiotics, pesticides, and lead can contaminate the counterfeit honey. In 2008, German-based company ALW Food Group got in trouble for illegally importing cheap honey from China and mislabeling it as Korean White Honey to avoid paying tariffs and make more profit. If you’re worried that the bear-shaped container of honey in your kitchen isn’t real, you can easily find out with a couple of at-home tests. Spread some honey on a slice of bread, and wait a couple of minutes—if the top of the bread becomes crunchy, your honey is real. If the bread gets soggy, your honey is fake.
3. IBERIAN HAM
Jamón ibérico (also called pata negra) is a Spanish and Portuguese cured ham that comes from black-hooved pigs. Because it comes from pure-bred, free range, acorn-eating Iberian pigs, jamón ibérico is considered one of the highest quality, most expensive hams in the world. Since the ham is often sold bone-in with the pig’s leg or hoof attached, counterfeiters have reportedly painted regular pigs' nails black to try to pass the meat off as Iberian ham. Why put lipstick on a pig when you can paint its nails instead?
4. OLIVE OIL
The New Yorker reported in 2007 on Italy’s massive olive oil fraud—olive oil counterfeiters (including the Mafia) might mislabel the oil’s country of origin, lie about its type (extra virgin—the highest-quality), or dilute it with cheap oils such as vegetable, soybean, or peanut oil. Some Italian olive oil suppliers import the oil from other countries, label it as Italian olive oil, and then export it. As much as 75 percent of olive oil in the U.S. is counterfeit and may contain chemicals and artificial colors that mask the color and smell of the cheaper oils it contains.
The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency, trading the beans for everything from green chiles to avocados to prostitutes. Counterfeiters made fake cacao beans out of painted or dyed wax, ash, clay, and avocado pits, and they even emptied real cacao beans and filled them with sand or mud to avoid detection. But the counterfeit chocolate industry is still going strong today. Modern chocolate counterfeiters may mix cheap ingredients such as vegetable oil into chocolate bars, use lower quality cacao beans than they claim, or put fake labels on the chocolate. Fraud can also occur among growers and middlemen who mix some regular cacao beans in with a batch of premium beans, making detection difficult.
Because most consumers can’t easily differentiate between the many varieties of fish that exist, fish is commonly counterfeited. Cheap or undesirable seafood (with high mercury levels) may be mislabeled as a more expensive or safer fish. For example, escolar can be sold as white tuna, tilapia is often sold as red snapper, and farmed fish can be mislabeled as wild-caught. In the early 2010s, a study [PDF] of over 1000 fish samples across the U.S. showed that 33 percent of the samples were mislabeled.
Vodka is a big target of counterfeiters, especially in Europe and Russia. Vodka forgers, including members of organized crime, distill the fake alcohol in factories, bottle it, and stamp it with labels of well-known companies such as Smirnoff and Absolut. Some counterfeit vodka contains dangerous ingredients such as bleach, methanol, paint thinner, and antifreeze. In 2012, almost two dozen people died in the Czech Republic after drinking contaminated, counterfeit liquor.
Because of its high price, saffron is vulnerable to fraud for those who try to bargain hunt. Saffron counterfeiters often pass off dried safflowers, onions dyed orange or red, and turmeric as saffron. To make sure you’re not getting fake saffron, buy threads rather than ground saffron, and smell it—but don’t rely on your nose alone. Some saffron counterfeiters mix in a few real strands with the fake ones.
Many people can’t taste the difference between a fine wine and a cheaper one—or at least they are less likely to notice a difference between a quality $30 bottle and an imitation—so counterfeit wine is a con artist's treasure trove. In 2012, for example, wine collector Rudy Kurniawan made $50 million by selling counterfeit wine. Using sealing wax and affixing fake labels to bottles, he ran a wine counterfeiting operation out of his home in Los Angeles for nearly a decade before he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Luckily, the wine industry has started adopting anti-counterfeiting technology such as radio frequency identification (RFID) scanning and DNA testing, so you might not have to worry about unintentionally ordering a glass of fake wine.
All photos via iStock.