Food is also one of the easier products to fake because the distinctions from the real deal are often subtle. "The biggest challenge with food products is that they're natural, and there's an infinite number of variation in natural products," says John Spink, associate director of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program at Michigan State University, who authored the new Journal of Food Science study. Criminals are counting on shoppers not tasting differences between wines, and not noticing that their supposedly wild salmon isn't quite as pink as it should be when cooked. As more cooks experiment with high-end olive oils, artisanal meats and heirloom produce, passing off a cheap ingredient as its fancier counterpart grows more profitable, too.
Avoiding fakes comes down largely to being an informed shopper and buying from trustworthy sources. Branded products tend to have more supply-chain safeguards, says Narrod. "It's their reputation on the line, so they have things in place," she says. It can also help to buy products with shorter supply chains which tend to be local or minimally processed, Spink says. And if the taste of an item seems off, or you get sick, it's worth alerting both the store and the local public health department.
Because they're ingested, fraudulent foods carry more significant health concerns than other fakes. Consumers with allergies could have a reaction, says Amy Kircher, associate director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense. Some substituted items aren't meant for human consumption, and others contain toxic ingredients like lead or melamine.
Here are eight foods researchers say shoppers may unwittingly buy fraudulent versions of.
- Olive Oil
- Fruit Juice
- Baby Formula