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Food fraud encompasses a range of activities including intentional adulteration or substitution of ingredients and mislabelling of food products. Although it is difficult to quantify the impact of food fraud, estimates of the annual global trade in counterfeit food and drink range from $6.2 billion to $40 billion. Modern food supply chains and manufacturing infrastructure have greatly increased opportunities for it to occur, its scale and impact.

Examples of high-profile cases of food fraud include the addition of undeclared horsemeat to a variety of beef products in the UK and Europe in 2013, addition of melamine to baby formula in China in 2008 and the presence of other ingredients (including olive and myrtle leaves) in around one in four UK samples of oregano in 2016.

Key Points

  • Foods that are commonly reported to be adulterated include herbs and spices, coffee, seafood, honey and olive oil.
  • In addition to affecting consumer choice and confidence, food fraud may pose a public health risk. In 2016, a restaurant owner was sentenced to prison after substituting almond powder with mixed nut powder containing peanuts, resulting in the death of a customer.
  • Other impacts on consumers include loss of nutrition and inadvertent consumption of foods that are normally restricted for ethical or religious reasons.
  • Businesses may suffer financial losses following food fraud incidents due to factory closure, product recalls or destruction of contaminated ingredients or products. Companies may also suffer reputational damage.
  • A range of UK laws and regulation contribute to preventing food fraud. The majority of law relating to food in the UK is based on the Food Safety Act 1990, which prohibits food which is not of the nature, substance or quality that consumers would expect, and describing or presenting food in a false or misleading way.
  • Public bodies responsible detecting and mitigating food fraud include local authorities, government departments and regulators. In England, Defra is responsible for policy and legislation on food labelling and composition. It is also responsible for the Government’s food authenticity research programme, which identifies risks to food authenticity and develops and validates food testing methods.
  • Strategies to detect and prevent food fraud broadly fall into two categories: scientific analysis to test the authenticity of foods and broader mitigation strategies including intelligence gathering, vulnerability assessments and economic analysis strategies.
  • Each food business has its own approach to testing the authenticity of its products. Food retailers often have contractual agreements with suppliers that require them to carry out authenticity testing of their ingredients. Large food retailers, such as supermarkets, typically have their own routine monitoring programmes.
  • There are a variety of analytical techniques that can be used to test for adulterated food and drink and often a combination of methods will be used.
  • Testing can be targeted (whereby the analysis looks for a pre-defined characteristic, such as a specific adulterants or section of DNA), or non-targeted (whereby multiple measurements of a sample are taken using a variety of techniques to obtain a sample’s ‘chemical fingerprint’)
  • Barriers to tackling food fraud relate to the cost and capability of authenticity testing, perpetrators changing their mode of operation, and a complex regulatory enforcement system.
  • The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said that there is no evidence to suggest the UK will be at more risk from food crime after the Brexit transition period. However, some stakeholders have raised concerns that EU exit may impact the UK’s vulnerability to food fraud.
  • Concerns relate to checks on food imports, the UK’s food testing capacity and the extent of UK access to EU food fraud intelligence networks.


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Adrian Charlton, Fera Science*
  • Alex McKinlay, Defra*
  • Alison Johnson, Food Forensics Ltd*
  • Ben Goodall, Food Standards Agency*
  • Bhavna Parmar, Food Standards Agency*
  • David Franklin, Food Standards Agency*
  • David Pickering, Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards*
  • Dr Caroline Pritchard, National Measurement Laboratory, LGC*
  • Dr Cecilia Flores Elizondo, University of Manchester*
  • Dr David I Ellis, Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, University of Manchester*
  • Dr Helen Grundy, Fera Science*
  • Dr Helen Kendall, University of Newcastle*
  • Dr James Donarski, Fera Science*
  • Dr John Spink, Food Fraud Initiative, Michigan State University*
  • Dr Julian Braybrook, Government Chemist & National Measurement Laboratory, LGC*
  • Dr Malcolm Burns, Office of the Government Chemist, LGC*
  • Dr Michael Walker, Office of the Government Chemist, LGC*
  • Dr Rosario Romero, Fera Science*
  • Dr Sophie Rollinson, Defra*
  • Elizabeth Andoh-Kesson, British Retail Consortium*
  • Giles Chapman, National Food Crime Unit*
  • Helen Munday, Food and Drink Federation*
  • Jim Fitzpatrick, Former MP
  • John Points, Consultant Analytical Scientist*
  • Jonathan Finlay, House of Commons Library*
  • Kerina Cheesman, Food and Drink Federation*
  • Liz Moran, Public Analyst Scientific Services*
  • Miguel Arranz Carrero, Defra*
  • Members of the POST Board*
  • Paul Dobson, Food Intelligence Industry Network*
  • Peter Wareing, Food Safety Ltd*
  • Professor Chris Elliott, Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast*
  • Professor Lisa Jack, University of Portsmouth*
  • Professor Louise Manning, Royal Agriculture University*
  • Professor Nicholas Lord, University of Manchester*
  • Professor Roy Goodacre, University of Liverpool*
  • Rachel Ward, Institute for Food Science and Technology*
  • Richard Werran, British Standards Institution*
  • Ron McNaughton, Food Standards Scotland*
  • Samantha Royston, National Food Crime Unit*
  • Sarah Coe, House of Commons Library*
  • Selvarani Elahi, Office of the Government Chemist, LGC and Food Authenticity Network*
  • Stephanie Young, Staffordshire County Council*
  • Tom Stafford, Defra*
  • Trefor Griffith, Grant Thornton

 *denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing. 

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