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food / travel

Bogus Honey, Olive Oil Remix: How Fraudulent Foods Spread Around The World

What you have in your plate isn't always what you think it is. As food counterfeiting increases in the food industry and in our daily lives, some products are more likely to be "fake", and it's up to consumers to be careful.

Image of honey


Arwin Neil Baichoo / Unsplash
Marine Béguin

All that glitters isn't gold – and all that looks yummy isn't necessarily the real deal.

Food fraud or food counterfeiting is a growing concern in the food industry. The practice of substituting or adulterating food products for cheaper, lower quality or even harmful ingredients not only deceives consumers but can pose serious health risks.

Here's an international look at some of the most widespread fake foods – from faux olive oil to counterfeit seafood and even fraudulent honey.

Honey fraud, from China to Turkey

As German daily Die Welt notes, honey is one of the most counterfeited foods in the world. And Germany would know, as the country’s local honey production covers just one third of its consumption, which means that the rest is imported – and often of poor quality.

Hence the rise of honey-like products made from glucose or other sugar syrups, containing added flavours, fillers, dyes and sugars — and possibly not even any bee honey at all. As bees disappear, the honey we consume is increasingly not real honey, writes French daily Le Monde.

An investigation by the European Commission has uncovered massive honey fraud, revealing that nearly half (46%) of the honey imported into Europe is fake – often made with rice, wheat or sugar beet syrup. Products from China (74%) and Turkey (93%) are particularly likely to be fake, but first place goes to British products: European Commission tests found that 100% of the samples of honey packaged or blended in the UK were found to be adulterated.

This is a well-documented phenomenon: previously, a 2015 European Commission study tested more than 2,000 honey samples and found that almost 32% were fraudulent or suspect, while a new report from the European Anti-Fraud Office shows an increase in honey adulteration in Europe.

“Made in Italy”?

“Neither Italian, nor virgin” – that’s how magazine Forbes describes the state of olive oil on grocery store shelves. Like honey, the olive oil market is rife with food fraud.

Extra virgin olive oil should mean that no product has been added during the production process – but is that always true? Forbes reports that around 80% of so-called Italian olive oil available in stores is actually not from Italy, nor made entirely out of olives. Instead, it’s often poor quality oil, a mixture of vegetable oils or oil from all over the world (often Turkey, Tunisia or Syria) – anywhere except Italy, but at the price of a 100% Italian extra virgin olive oil.

European Union countries produce around 67% of the world’s olive oil – mainly in Mediterranean countries like Italy and Spain. Sunflower or rapeseed oil are often the adulterants of choice – but recent analyses of 11 brands of alleged fraudulent olive oil in the Extremadura and Andalucia regions of Spain showed that one brand contained lampante oil, a poor-quality olive oil that was historically used in oil-burning lamps and is unsuitable for human consumption.

Image of a worker handling cheese wheels at a dairy

A worker handles cheese wheels at a dairy

© Gavriil Grigorov / ZUMA

The truth about Parmesan

Genuine Parmesan cheese is a renowned Italian product, made to exacting standards in specific regions in Italy. But what’s sold as Parmesan cheese is often not from Italy and can often be better described as a cheese product, or cheese-adjacent – but they bear no resemblance to authentic cheese.

Manufacturers or traders often mix real Parmesan cheese with less expensive cheeses or bulk up their blends with cheap filler ingredients – including wood pulp and palm oil. In the U.S., research from the University of Missouri found that 29% of 52 samples of grated Parmesan cheeses were adulterated with palm oil, while reporting from Bloomberg found that some brands of “100% Grated Parmesan cheese” contained up to 8.8% cellulose, or wood pulp.

Canadian fish laundering

Fake fish is a rampant, illegal practice, and studies show that some fish are cheap, similar-looking species passed off as more expensive products, or sold as fresh when they’ve actually been frozen.

In 2022, the Guardian Seascape looked at 44 studies on seafood in markets and restaurants in more than 30 countries and reported that, of the 9,000 samples studied, 36% were falsely labeled or otherwise fraudulent.

The UK and Canada were the worst of countries surveyed, with 55% of fish products in those markets found to be mislabeled. The Guardian’s investigation also found endangered species passed off as other fish – and that some fish products were not fish at all, but pork.

British-ish pork

The 2013 European horse meat scandal – where horse meat was found in products described as beef – kicked off an increased focus on food safety in the EU. But food fraud risks seem to be making a comeback in the UK since Brexit, The Guardian reports. Professor Chris Elliott, who chaired the 2013 horsemeat investigation, told the newspaper that the UK now lacks the resources put in place by the EU to fight food fraud.

A recent investigation by Farmers Weekly found “British” pork sold by one of the UK’s largest manufacturers was actually often from overseas – and sometimes rotten, and that the UK Food Standards Agency was investigating the alleged meat fraud.

Image of a farmer handling olives

A farmer handling olives

© Mahmoud Issa / ZUMA

How to avoid fake foods?

Avoiding fake foods is all about being careful: purchase from reputable sources, read labels and packaging, check for proper seals and certifications and pay attention to pricing (cheap does not often rhyme with good quality). But even though these measures can reduce the risk of encountering fake foods, recent headlines show it’s always a possibility.

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How Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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