Updated 07 October 2015

Foods that are faked and how it's done

Fake foods are flooding the South African market and has become a multi-million dollar global industry. We take a look at foods that are commonly faked, how it's done and how to spot a counterfeit food product.


A recent article published in the fst magazine (the official magazine of the South African Association of Food Science and Technology or SAAFoST),shattered Health24's DietDoc, dietician Dr Ingrid van Heerden's confidence in what is really in the food products we buy. 

The article by Wendy Dias, Market Development and Product Manager of Synchron Marketing who specialises in Brand Protection and High Security, about ‘Counterfeit Food’ made her sit up and realise that food counterfeiting has reared it's ugly head again - or maybe it was there all the time, but we just 'forgot' about it for a while.

Read: DietDoc reacts to growing food faking industry

Types of food  that are faked or adulterated

As far back as in 2002 The New Scientist reported that the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) carried out DNA survey of Basmati rice and found that only 54% of bags labelled as such contained pure Basmati rice (peculiar to a grain grown on the plains around the Ganges river in northern India and east Pakistan). All the other samples were mixed with inferior varieties. 

According to the European Parliament's food safety committee, olive oil is the product most at risk of food fraud. Cheap pomace olive oil - extracted from olive residue using chemicals - sells for R6 per 100ml, compared with R39 per 100ml for extra virgin. It is far safer to buy South African olive oil.

Rice (a bulk product) and olive oil (generally regarded as a luxury item) are only some of the products that are faked and sold across the world.

In 2006 Michael Broughton,  director of the Crime Prevention Unit at Centers for Consumer Goods Council (CGC) in SA, told IOL they had discovered counterfeit milk, wine, liquor, matches, tinned fish, polish, sweets, rice, chips and biscuits in South Africa.

In 2005 Lana van Zyl, a director in charge of company and intellectual property investigations at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) told that Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal are SA's counterfeit capitals where staples such as rice, baked beans, maize and masala are sold on street corners and flea markets under false labels. 

In one raid inspectors seized 20 tons of rice and baked beans and 40 tons of fake maize. The latter was destroyed as it was not fit for human consumption. 

According to the IOL article, police also found a consignment containing hundreds of boxes of counterfeit Rajah curry powder. Other products that are also often adulterated or faked are honey, whisky, gin, vodka, fruit juice, butter, meat and instant coffee.

A spokesman for the SA Department of Trade and Industry said that South Africa is regarded as a top ‘dumping’ destination for fake and illegally imported goods due to the high demand created by local consumers. According to reports, in 2013 alone SARS conducted more than 25 000 seizures and confiscated illegal goods valued at R2.6 billion.

Goods are often smuggled into the country from places such as South-East Asia. According to the SARS 2012/2013 Annual Report, presented to Parliament on 18 September 2013, among the methods used by illicit traders to circumvent customs and other Government agencies are identity theft, falsification of documents, ghost businesses and alternative remittance schemes.

Snapshot of goods commonly counterfeit, by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime


How the counterfeiters do it

IOL reported that the counterfeiters import fake foods - or produce them locally - then either scan or copy the packaging of a branded product or steal over-runs of packaging and use this to package inferior or fake products or ingredients. 

These products are relatively easily distributed to Spaza shops and informal traders, especially in rural areas where there is little control. The shop owners are often themselves unaware that the products are counterfeit. 

Stuart Shotton, consultancy services director at Foodchain Europe, told the New Zealand Harald that criminal gangs move into food fraud if they spot these opportunities:

"Either a product is high value but low volume and you want to replace certain elements to make more of a profit, or it is low price [but] high volume, where economies of scale dictate that if you can shave a penny off a product and you are selling a million products, you've made a substantial amount of money."

Image: A collection of original and fake foods displayed at the Museum of Counterfeiting in Paris, France

How to spot a fake food product

This can be extremely difficult, but where you can:

  Buy from vendors and supermarkets who have a reputation for testing products and follow good labelling practices
  Buy whole products, such as pepper corns and coffee beans, and grind them yourself
  Ensure the name and address/contact details of the manufacturer is indicated on the packet and also look for recycling symbols and trademarks
  Look for spelling errors in the description on the packet and also check the quality of the images or if the ink has run on the printing
  Be suspicious of labels that aren't affixed neatly or don't reflect the product in the packaging
  If you're paying a really good price for a brand product, it's probably fake
  Contact Foodsure - a South African independent product testing company and ask them to test the product to see if what's described on the label is also in the packet. 
  Avoid foods with the words 'aroma' or 'essence' instead of an original ingredient as flavouring
  Buy whole fish where possible as they can't be faked - but be sure you know your fish
  Be wary of buying foods from unregistered online stores that don't have verifiable customer service contact details, a return policy, or geographical address. Even so, counterfeit goods are sold on retail giants Amazon and eBay by 3rd party sellers, who make up up to 40% of goods sold in these online stores. 

Why you should not buy counterfeit goods

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says: The criminals behind these operations threaten public health through the production of fraudulent foods and medicines; they deprive the public sector of tax revenue through bypassing official channels; they add to public spending through increased law enforcement work to counter this illicit trade; and they increase the price of legitimate products as companies seek to recoup their losses.

Minister of Trade and Industry, Dr Rob Davies, says by buying pirated and fake goods, consumers are not just saving a few rands – they are effectively supporting a worldwide franchise of criminal activity. Consumers are encouraged to support local products and be proudly South African.

Read more:
Up to 30% of all medicines in Africa are fake
Beware herbal products that contain unlisted products
Follow updates on meat scandals on News24


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