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EMA Frequently Asked Questions

Economically Motivated Adulteration FAQ

Q: What is “EMA”?

A: Economically motivated adulteration (EMA) is the intentional sale of substandard food products or ingredients for the purpose of economic gain. Common types of EMA include substitution or dilution of an authentic ingredient with a cheaper product (such as replacing extra virgin olive oil with a cheaper oil), flavor or color enhancement using illicit or unapproved substances (such as unapproved dyes), and substitution of one species with another (such as fish species fraud).

Q: Is EMA the same as “food fraud”?

A: EMA is often referred to as "food fraud," and FPDI uses the two terms interchangeably.

Q: What foods are affected by EMA?

A: Many foods are known to be susceptible to EMA. These food products include fish and seafood, dairy products, fruit juices, oils, honey, spices, wine, and infant formula. EMA is not a new concern, although it may seem like there has been a recent increase in incidents over the past few years. This is partly due to increased media coverage and, perhaps, increased surveillance in certain food product. Reports of fraud in products like wine and olive oil date back to ancient times. We do not know how widespread the problem of EMA is. The number of documented incidents is most likely a fraction of the true number of incidents, since the goal of EMA perpetrators is to avoid detection.

Q: What is FPDI doing in its EMA research?

A: FPDI maintains a searchable database of documented incidents of EMA since 1980 to learn from past incidents in hopes of preventing future ones. We also published a paper describing our research on past EMA events (Journal of Food Protection, April 2013). Finally, we are analyzing multiple data sources to try to detect incidents of EMA earlier, before they cause public health harm.

Q: What should consumers know about EMA when purchasing food?

A: There are certain things consumers can do to help protect themselves from EMA. If the price of a valuable food product is too good to be true, it probably is. Whole, unprocessed foods (such as unground coffee and spices, or whole fruits instead of juice) are often more difficult to adulterate, therefore, buying these foods may offer some measure of protection from EMA. In the case of processed foods, it is a good idea to buy from reputable sources and brands that have a vested interest in protecting their reputation. When EMA incidents are discovered, they can result in large profit and reputation losses for companies. Therefore, companies with brand recognition will take the appropriate steps to protect their good name. There are also trade associations that certify products through quality and purity assurance testing programs, such as the North American Olive Oil Association Seal Program: http://www.naooa.org/sealprogram.

Q: Does EMA cause health harm?

A: The good news is that most incidents of EMA do not result in public health harm. Unfortunately, sometimes perpetrators make mistakes and unintended health consequences result. For example, in 2008, companies in China were found to be adulterating milk supplies with a chemical called melamine, because it artificially increased the apparent protein content. Melamine-adulterated milk was used in the manufacture of infant formula. The adulteration resulted in illnesses in hundreds of thousands of Chinese infants, and the deaths of at least six. In 1981, industrial-grade oil adulterated with multiple chemicals was sold as olive oil in Spain, and resulted in more than 300 deaths.

Q: Does EMA only affect humans? What about pets?

A: Since the food supply chains for humans, pets, and production animals are interconnected, EMA in a food product can affect both humans and animals. In 2007, there was an incident of EMA involving wheat gluten that was added as an ingredient to pet food, and thousands of dogs and cats in the U.S. became ill or died.

Q: Are government regulatory agencies concerned about EMA?

A: The FDA (FDA.gov), USDA (USDA.gov), and DHS (DHS.gov) are working to protect the food supply from EMA as well as other food safety risks. FPDI works with these government agencies to learn from the history of EMA incidents, and find innovative ways to detect and deter future incidents.

Q: What are the differences between your EMA databases and the United States Pharmacopeial Convention’s database?

A: FPDI’s EMA Incident Database characterizes discrete incidents of EMA to understand the incentive behind the adulteration, the adulterant that was used, how the adulteration was discovered, and, therefore, how we can detect and deter similar incidents in the future. The United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) Food Fraud Database is a repository of journal articles and media reports related to food fraud and identifies analytical methods aimed at detection of adulterants.