Japan – When is “Fake Food” NOT “Food Fraud? The “Shokuhin Sample”

Written by: John Spink

Primary Source:  Food Fraud Initiative


Actually this is legal, valuable to the food industry, and recognized not only as pop-culture but as art! There have been art gallery exhibits of the fake food.

To clarify, there is a widespread practice in Japan of providing plastic representations of the food that you can order in a restaurant. The plastic samples are very realistic. The Wikipedia page for “Fake Food” states “Fake food or food samples are a model or replica of a food item made from plastic, wax, resin or similar material. These models are commonly used in restaurant street displays in Japan to represent the dishes available inside.” There is no deception, and a piece of hard plastic lasagna would never be able to be passed off as genuine… so it is not “illegal deception for economic gain using food.” So, in this case, “fake food” is NOT “food fraud.”

In Japan, the term used reportedly is “Shokuhin sampuru” or “Shokuhin sample”which is roughly a product sample made by a person who exhibits great mastery, dedication and joy in the creation. It is often applied to these examples of the foods.

This is a funny example but raises important questions about terminology. Based on Webster’s Dictionary definitions:

  • “Fake” “food”: a “food” that is a “counterfeit, sham”, so not really a very descriptive phrase for the Shokuhin sampuru.
    • “Counterfeit” “food”: A “food” that is “made in imitation of something else with intent to deceive”
    • Sham:
      • “a trick that deludes [or] a sham”
      • “cheap falseness : hypocrisy”
      • “an imitation or counterfeit purporting to be genuine”
    • “Replica” “food”: a “food” that is “an exact reproduction (as of a painting) executed by the original artist”, but this does not seem to fit the true definition of Shokuhin sampuru.
    • “Plastic” “Food” “Sample”: a “food” that is made of “plastic” that is “a representative part or a single item from a larger whole or group especially when presented for inspection or shown as evidence of quality : specimen.” This is getting closer to the intended meaning.
    • “Artificial” “food”: is “food” that is “humanly contrived often based on a natural model” but this could also be a synthetic genuine food.
    • “Model” “food”: a “food” that is “usually a miniature representation of something” but this could also be translated as an “ideal” food.

These terms don’t really define the “Shokuhin sampuru.”  For example, the English words seem to have somewhat confusing definitions or even confusion from multiple meanings for the same term. Thinking of “model cars” that are miniature hobby crafts, Webster’s Dictionary lists five different definitions of the word “model”. Also, “artificial” is listed with six definitions. Maybe the most descriptive phrase is “model food sample”?

The objective of this blog post is to take a fun but serious look at terminology. While using the phrase “fake food” is catchy, it is not very descriptive and does not have a legal foundation. In a search of the US Code (the US laws) there were no (zero, zilch, nada, nil) results for the term “fake.” As has been the recent practice by groups – including Codex Alimentarius, Global Food Safety Initiative, Interpol, and others – the term “food fraud” is clearer and provides more direct language translations. FFI.

Reference: Slesin, Suzanne (1983). FINE JAPANESE ART OF MAKING FAKE FOOD, New York Times, [Accessed March 9, 2018], URL: http://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/25/garden/fine-japanese-art-of-making-fake-food.html

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John Spink
Dr. Spink has been focused on product fraud since the Michigan State University’s Food Safety Program and the School of Packaging began research on the topic in 2006. This work expanded to the behavioral sciences and criminology and led to the establishment of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Initiative in 2008. In 2009 the work shifted to the School of Criminal Justice where the Initiative evolved into a Program.