Threats to food safety

What are the main threats to food safety?

Every business that sells food must follow a HACCP plan and create a food safety management system that is designed to prevent unintentional contamination. Alongside this, many food businesses will also put measures in place to prevent the intentional contamination of food within its supply chain, using the principles of TACCP and VACCP to help them do so.

In this article we will outline some of the most common threats to food safety that a business faces. To learn more about TACCP and VACCP, click here to view our HACCP, TACCP and VACCP FAQ article.

Economically motivated adulteration

Food fraud often comes in the form of economically motivated adulteration. This is any deliberate adulteration-related act committed for financial gain or the avoidance of loss.

EMA can come in many different forms: by simple adulteration, substitution, dilution, mislabelling or counterfeiting. Be aware that an act of EMA may involve more than one of these processes.

In most cases of EMA, the adulterant does not present a food safety hazard and is something that cannot be easily identified. This is because successful adulteration (from the attacker’s point of view) relies on not being detected. EMA usually occurs upstream on the food supply chain, close to where the primary ingredients are manufactured/produced. This is usually because EMA is significantly harder to detect once the supplied product has been used or processed.

Threats to food safety: Adulteration

Adulteration is when an additional, often inferior and cheaper-to-produce substance is added to a product. This is usually done to increase profit.

This occurred in Naivasha, Kenya in 2014, when it was discovered that hawkers were putting preservatives such as formalin (used to preserve bodies) in milk in an attempt to prolong its shelf life. It was said that, at the time, around 60% of milk sold in the town had been intentionally adulterated and was unfit for human consumption.

Threats to food safety: Substitution

Substitution is when all or part of a substance is replaced with something similar that does not obviously change the product’s characteristics.

A high-profile case of substitution occurred in 2016, when Nigerian customs officials confiscated 2.5 tonnes of rice that they suspected was made of plastic. The fake rice looked real at first glance but had a faint chemical odour and was too sticky when cooked. It was intended to be sold at markets during the festive season, where it would be in demand and easy to sell without being detected.

While it is clear that this substitution was economically motivated, it could also have caused widespread harm to those that consumed any of the fake food.

Threats to food safety: Dilution

Dilution is a form of substitution in which a cheaper alternative product is added to a higher-value ingredient, reducing its quality but increasing the profit margin.

Certain high-value items are more susceptible to dilution, including extra virgin olive oil and saffron, because it can be difficult to detect without rigorous testing.

In 2016, several Australian supermarkets were found to be selling oregano products that had been diluted with olive leaves, despite claiming to contain ‘100 percent oregano’. In fact, random testing of dried oregano products by a consumer group found that only 5 of the 12 most popular brands contained pure oregano. Aldi, one of the supermarket chains implicated, said that supply chain disruption and issues were to blame.

Threats to food safety: Mislabelling

Mislabelling is when a product is intentionally labelled incorrectly to deceive customers into thinking that it is of a higher quality, has a different origin, is safer, etc.

In 2017, a company in Northern Spain was found to be manufacturing burgers that were labelled as beef burgers but contained other foods contrary to this labelling. An investigation discovered that many burgers contained pork products, bread supplements, fat and soy, and that some contained less than 25% beef. In response to this, 12 people were arrested and charged with consumer fraud.

Threats to food safety: Counterfeiting

Counterfeiting is fraudulently passing off inferior products as being produced for/by established and reputable companies. Criminals can steal genuine packaging materials for their fake products or use sophisticated printing technologies to produce labels and packaging that are indistinguishable from those used for genuine products.

The motivation for counterfeiting is financial gain, which can also cause financial and reputational harm to the brands being copied. Also, counterfeiters are rarely concerned with food safety and hygiene, meaning that counterfeit food products may pose a health risk to consumers.

Malicious contamination

Malicious contamination is when a food product is contaminated deliberately with the intention of causing damage to a business, or harm to the consumer through illness or death. These contaminants can be physical, chemical, allergenic or microbiological in nature.

An example of this occurred in 2005, when fragments of glass and sewing needles were found in the packaging of bread manufactured by Allied Bakeries in their Orpington, UK plant. It was confirmed that the contaminants were likely to have been deliberately introduced, and security at this plant was increased significantly as a result.

Malicious contamination typically occurs at the end of the food supply chain, just before it reaches the final consumer, because it is more likely to go undetected.


Extortion occurs when a malicious actor threatens to intentionally contaminate an organisation’s products unless they receive a pay-off and is financially motivated.

It can occur at any stage of the food supply chain, including the production and distribution stages, and is usually targeted at sensitive products, such as baby food, or those produced by well-known high-street brands.

An example of this occurred between 2018 and 2020, during which a farmer attempted to extort £1.4 million in Bitcoin from the supermarket Tesco by threatening them with contaminating products. He was caught deliberately placing shards of metal inside baby food products, forcing the retailer to recall around 42,000 jars.


Espionage is when someone accesses a competitor’s intellectual property to gain a commercial advantage. This can be done in several ways, including:

  • Convincing an employee of the targeted company to reveal confidential information.
  • Remotely accessing information systems.
  • Covertly recording information.
  • Smuggling or stealing confidential material.

In 2016, a Chinese man pleaded guilty to stealing patent-protected inbred corn seeds from fields in Iowa with the intention of sending them to his employer, Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group, for use in their own seed business. These seeds had been bioengineered to boost yields and increase resistance to drought and insects, making their genetic make-up an extremely valuable trade secret.


Cybercrime describes any criminal activity that is conducted online or makes use of computers and other digital devices. These activities are usually done for one of two reasons:

  • To gain access to information.
  • To stop systems from functioning.

Cyber-attacks can cause a range of issues for a food business. This includes:

  • Significant financial loss caused by downtime.
  • Loss of trade secrets such as recipes and processes.
  • Reputational damage and fines for failing to protect personal data.
  • Injury and equipment damage if control systems are attacked.

Click here to view our article that explores the main forms of cyber attack, and how individuals can protect themselves from experiencing an attack.

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Further Reading