Rotten meat - A common food fraud
Non Recipes

The dark truth about food fraud: How criminals make billions of dollars each year


When we think about illegal trade and black markets we often think of firearms and drugs. But the worldwide market for food fraud is even bigger than these two. The European Commission estimates that the worldwide costs of food fraud to the global food industry and consumers exceed 30 billion euros every year.

The illegal market for firearms with a value of 8.5 billion US Dollars is comparatively small while the heroin market with a value of 30 billion US dollars is comparable in size.

A lot of people think of food fraud as a trivial offense. Nothing that is harmful. In fact, a lot of people even call others clever who dilute dried herbs with cheaper leaves or who sell horse meat labeled as beef. In these cases, at least the health of others doesn’t get harmed.

But let’s look a the 2008 Chinese Milk Scandal. Infant formula was adulterated with melamine which makes diluted milk powder look like it has a higher protein content. About 54 000 babies had to be hospitalized because the infant formula caused protein deficiencies. Six babies even died from kidney damage.

Baby drinking milk formula
Low-protein infant milk formulas caused health problems among Chinese babies.

But before you tell me that this is China and incidents like this don’t happen in the Western world, I have another example for you. In 2019, three people died because sausages of the German company Wilke were contaminated with listeria. Another 37 victims had to be hospitalized because of the infection. The company is closed now because of severe violations of hygiene standards and the CEO has been accused of negligent homicide. Rotten sausages and meat had been sold to retailers for many years.

Most cases of food fraud pose no health hazard

Of course, most cases of food fraud are harmless to the health of the consumer. But even if there is no physical harm there is huge financial harm caused by food fraud. Food fraud is a globally operating organized crime business.

In 2019, 20 criminals in Germany and Italy were arrested for producing and selling counterfeit olive oil. The criminals made up to 8 million euros in profit each year from selling sunflower oil colored with chlorophyll. They sold more than one million liters a year of fake extra-virgin olive oil for 5-10 euros per liter. The overall investment for the sunflower oil was a mere one million Euros.

Olive oil coming out of the centrifuge
Because of its high market value, producing fake olive oil is very profitable for criminals.

In 2018, Europol claimed to have removed 3600 tonnes of dangerous food from the consumer market. Over the course of four months, across 67 countries, they carried out 41 000 checks at shops, markets, airports, seaports, and industrial estates. This led to the arrest or detention of 749 people. Nearly 50 criminal networks were exposed. Here are some shocking examples of their findings:

  • In Belgium, a major meat processing plant was closed because they sold rotten meat unfit for human consumption. The minced beef contained meat waste and pieces of the carcass which are prohibited for human consumption.
  • In Spain, a factory that packaged counterfeit baby milk powder destined for export to China was shut down. The powder came from Poland and lacked the nutrients needed by infants.
  • Tuna in all over Europe that was originally intended for canning was illegally treated with chemical substances to alter its color and sell it “fresh” as tuna steaks. Mislabelling was also a common issue as cheaper tuna species were sold labeled as more expensive species.

A study by Spanish scientists analyzed 545 tuna samples in six European countries and found an overall mislabelling rate of 6.79 %. There was no significant difference in the mislabelling rate between fresh, frozen, and canned tuna. The most commonly mislabelled product was the Atlantic Bluefin tuna. It’s one of the rare and more desirable tuna species. Offer and demand do not match and the result is a very high mislabelling rate.

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Overall mislabelling rates (OVERALL MR) for fresh and frozen tuna products and mislabelling rate of products excluding those labeled as Atlantic Bluefin tuna (MR EXCLUDING ABFT) in six European countries. Source: PLoS One

Mislabelling of seafood is a common crime worldwide

The US also has a huge problem with seafood fraud. The government urges Americans to include more seafood in their diet and thus the demand is growing. From 2010 to 2012, Oceana conducted one of the largest seafood fraud investigations worldwide. DNA-testing led to the result that 33 percent of the analyzed seafood samples in the US were mislabeled according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

Snapper (87 % mislabelling rate) and tuna (59 % mislabelling rate) had the highest mislabeling rates. Compare that to an average mislabelling rate for tuna of 6.79 % in Europe and it becomes apparent that the situation in the US is even worse. 75 % of sushi restaurants in the US sell mislabelled fish.

Mislabeling rate among common fish types in the US
Mislabelling rates among common fish types in the US. Source: Oceana

It’s not uncommon in the US to sell:

  • king mackerel labeled as grouper
  • escolar labeled as white tuna
  • tilapia labeled as red snapper
  • Atlantic halibut labeled as Pacific halibut

One of the problems is that a lot of US consumers prefer fillets over whole fish and that it is very unrealistic that anyone in the world can differentiate the 1700 different species of seafood available for sale in the US. So it’s very easy to make economic gains through mislabelling.

Which other foods are commonly manipulated?

Just as in Europe, olive oil fraud is also very common in the US. Forbes magazine even asked the question: “If 80 % is fake, why do you keep buying it?” It is the sad truth that 80 % of the Italian extra virgin olive oil on the American market is fraudulent.

The biggest problem in the US is by far the quality. Most extra virgin olive oil sold in the US is not of “extra virgin” quality. But not just that. It might also be that the oil is not from Italy or that it has been diluted with other oils. Or it is no olive oil at all and just a vegetable oil disguised with coloring and aroma. It’s all the same issues as in Germany.

Besides seafood and oil, other foods that are often associated with food fraud are:

  • milk and milk-based products (eg. blending of cow milk with milk from other animals, dilution and supplementation with melamine to artificially raise the apparent protein content)
  • honey, maple syrup, and other sweeteners (eg. dilution with sugar syrup, mislabeling of Chinese honey as local honey)
  • fruit juice (eg. dilution with water, blending of more expensive juice with cheaper juice, fake juice consisting of water, sugar, and aromas)
  • coffee and tea (eg. cutting of ground coffee with leaves, twigs, roasted ground barley, or roasted ground parchment, the addition of other leaves, color additives, and colored sawdust to tea blends)
  • spices (eg. addition of glycerin, sandalwood dust, and yellow dye to saffron, the addition of starch, buckwheat, or millet to pepper, the coloring of paprika and chili powders with Sudan red dyes)
  • organic foods and products (eg. labeling non-organic as organic food)
  • clouding agents (eg. addition of the harmful plasticizer DEHP to fruit juices or jams as a substitute for other clouding agents like palm oil)

The reported types of fraud worldwide by the food category are visualized in the pie chart below. By far the three biggest segments are oils, spices, and milk.

Food fraud incidents by food category
Leading Reported Types of Fraud, USP Scholarly Records (1980-2012). Source: Congressional Research Service

Most criminals aim to maximize their financial profits

Usually, criminals who conduct food fraud don’t intend to harm consumers. They are purely driven by the idea of gaining an economical advantage. Thus, most incidents remain undetected since they usually don’t result in a food safety risk and consumers are unable to notice a quality problem. The number of documented incidents, therefore, resembles only a small fraction of the true number of incidents. It is estimated that about 10 % of all commercially sold food products are affected by food fraud.

Food fraud is often motivated by the hope for economical gains
Most food fraud is economically motivated.

The most common type of food fraud, economically motivated adulteration (EMA) of foods, is considered a subset category of food fraud. The term EMA broadly references three types of fraud:

  • complete or partial replacement of food ingredients with a less expensive substitute (eg. horse meat instead of beef in ground meat)
  • addition of small amounts of a non-authentic substance to mask ingredients or foods of inferior quality (eg. addition of sugar and aromas to diluted apple juice)
  • removal or intentional omission of an authentic and valuable constituent in food (eg. selling whole milk with a reduced protein content)

False claims regarding geographic heritage are also considered as economically motivated adulteration.

Most cases of economically motivated adulteration are reported in the US followed by China and India. This, of course, doesn’t mean that food fraud is more common in the US than anywhere else. It’s rather an indication that other countries or regions don’t have the same ability and dedication to detect food fraud.

Food fraud incidents by location
Economically motivated adulteration incidents by location (1980 to date). Source: Congressional Research Service

Food fraud has resulted in countless food scandals

Let’s wrap up this discussion with a selection of ten food scandals from around the world:

  1. The mad cow disease in the 1980s killed over 100 people. 180 000 cattle were affected and millions had to be slaughtered for safety reasons.
  1. In 2013, the Irish Food Safety Authority identified horse DNA in over one-third of beef burgers. In Germany, horse meat was found in frozen lasagna and Swedish meatballs.
  1. In 2016, a young British girl suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after eating a Pret sandwich containing sesame seeds. The girl was allergic and the sesame seeds weren’t featured on the ingredient list.
  1. In 1985, the antifreeze-agent diethylene glycol was found in Austrian wine. Glycol makes the wine sweeter but is a health hazard.
  1. In 2004, European authorities discovered that the colors of spices imported from Turkey and India were manipulated with dying agents. Indian chili powder got its characteristic red color from the harmful dye Sudan red.
  1. In 2013, 130 tons of rotten Bavarian meat was sold to Berlin street vendors selling kebabs. Most of the meat was consumed by customers.
  1. In 2018, it was discovered that millions of conventionally produced barn eggs were labeled and sold as organic eggs in eight German states.
  1. In 2007, cancer-causing chemicals were discovered in soy sauce sold in Vietnam. But not just that, noodle soups sold on the street contained formaldehyde. This scandal can be traced back to bad farming practices and the use of toxic pesticides.
  1. In 2016, it was discovered that parmesan sold in the US was extended with cellulose. Some brands who labeled their product as 100 % parmesan contained no parmesan at all.
  1. In 2017, it was revealed that a company in Southern China had been boiling rotten pigs to extract oil that was later sold as cooking oil.

The amount of food fraud and food scandals in this world is appalling. Every day millions of people get cheated on and eventually even harmed by criminals in the food industry. The worst thing about this situation is that we are helpless. People are incredibly smart when it comes to counterfeiting food and other products.

We don’t have the capacity to detect and stop most of the food fraud that is happening. But we should be aware of it. And we should take a look at where our food comes from. Always ask yourself the question: where was my food grown and who processed it?


A daring task: the battle against food crime

150 000 litres of fake extra virgin olive oil seized from ‘well-oiled’ gang

Fraud on a plate: over 3 600 tonnes of dangerous food removed from consumer market

Tuna labels matter in Europe: Mislabelling rates in different tuna products

Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide

The Olive Oil Scam: If 80% Is Fake, Why Do You Keep Buying It?

Food Fraud and “Economically Motivated Adulteration” of Food and Food Ingredients


  1. ?was soll man da noch sagen?
    Kauft keine Billigware, es kann euch teuer zu stehen kommen. Geht auf die Märkte und in die Hofläden. Regionale Ware ist auch keine Versicherung, aber immer noch besser als das gepanschte Zeug. Olivenöl kann man auch direkt vom Bauern kaufen. Oliven-, Zitronen- und Orangenbäume kann man pachten (sucht danach im Internet) und hoffen, dass man nicht betrogen wird.
    Jedenfalls hat mich dein Beitrag gewaltig erschreckt und bringt mich dazu noch genauer hinzuschauen.
    Opa Reiner

    • Ja, da kann ich nur zustimmen Opa Reiner. Man kann sich zwar fast nie sicher sein, was man verkauft bekommt. Dennoch ist es wichtig, sich über die Herkunft unserer Nahrungsmittel zu informieren. Heutzutage wissen leider nur noch die wenigsten wo die Milchkühe grasen, die Tomaten in Konservendosen landen, und wo das Paprikapulver tatsächlich herkommt. Leider haben viele Menschen in Deutschland den “Kontakt” zur Nahrungsmittelerzeugung verloren. Das macht es teils auch leicht für Fälscher, da viele Konsumenten ja gar nicht wissen, wie unsere Lebensmittel erzeugt werden, und wodurch gute Qualität sich auszeichnet. Wir haben heutzutage so viele Lebensmittel wie nie zur Verfügung, und dennoch wissen wir kaum etwas über diese. In Deutschland sind nur die wenigsten Menschen vertraut mit Bananenstauden, Avocado-, und Zimtbäumen. Dennoch importieren und konsumieren wir diese Lebensmittel regelmäßig. Auch mit Olivenöl sind viele leider nicht vertraut. Dadurch fällt es dann entsprechend schwer, die Qualität der zum Verkauf angebotenen Öle richtig einzuschätzen. Wer nie ein gutes Olivenöl probiert hat, hat keine Vergleichswerte.

      Irgendwie schade, wir leben im Überfluss, sind damit aber auch überfordert, was andere dann wiederum ausnutzen.

      Gruß -Tim

  2. I am with you all the way Tim!

    Dont know what to say ,seeing adults serving their child Coke or Pepsi for a drink at a fast food joint!

    On the can it say how many teaspoonfulls of sugar their is 32 grams = 8 tsp of sugar. Parents dont seem to care , what they dont see does not matter?

    Our Government seems to have that same tone, allowing Gmo salmon to be sold on the grocery shelf and not having it labed as such!

    Keep up the good difficult work


    • Thanks, Harold! Yes, the amount of sugar in soft drinks is shocking. I used to work for a little while in the beverage industry. The drinks were basically all the same. A sugar syrup with aroma that was diluted with water and then carbonated at the filler machine. The amount of sugar the plant went through was enormous. A huge truckload of sugar arrived every other day. Although looking at all the artificial aromas, dying agents, and preservatives in these drinks, the sugar was the only natural ingredient that you would also use in a home kitchen.

      It’s ironic that these hyper-processed foods are considered as “value-added” products. The only value that is added here is the profit margin increase for the manufacturer. There’s nothing nutritious about these drinks and many other processed products. Yet every manufacturer tries to process the food as much as possible because that’s what makes the big money. But where is the value-addition if the milk fat in milk powder or cheese gets replaced with palm oil? Where is the value addition if water gets injected into meats or sausages to make them heavier and “juicier”? The food markets in Western countries are immensely oversaturated. We produce way too much food that the industry tries to force on us through their marketing. There’s so much sugar and milk produced in Europe, so that the government supports the industry in finding new ways to market these products. It’s honorable to protect farmers but we really don’t need a huge surplus of food that gets turned into “value-added” products. The limit on how much food we can consume has been reached. There is little room for growth yet that is what producers need: grow and increase profit margins in a saturated market. I hope our governments realize that at some point and act in a more consumer-friendly way. Industry jobs and profitability are important but the consumers should matter no less. – Tim

  3. Tim I believe we are on a slipper slop of self disrtuction, our young are totally mislead in values, religion or lack of it, racism,or the complete misunderstanding of it, they are raised in a biased selfinterest sociaty,” its okay for you but not in on my back yard” sort of way, and then these same children get into Government or business or in the teaching field to project their very centred ideas of what they think life should be and force it on all! This multiply s the lost art of being human and will be forgotten in generations as their is no more base to build a solid foundation on.

    Thanks for listening


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