Review – Adulteration, Adulterated, and Adulterant, with Insight from Accum’s 1820 Treatise on Adulteration of Food

Written by: John Spink

Primary Source: Food Fraud Initiative, 10/2/2018.

Cover image of Treatise on Adulaterations of Food and Culinary poisons by Fredrick Accum. Published 1820.Can there be an “adulterated food” that does not include an “adulterant”? Yes. Confused yet? Keep reading. The bottom line is that to avoid confusion it is recommended to use the terms “Food Fraud” or “adulterant-substance” when referring to the type of fraud that is a substance intentionally added for economic gain.

This blog post is a review of the key Food Fraud-related terms including adulteration, adulterated, and adulterant. After reviewing the FDA working definition in detail there is a summary of one of the most cited origins of food adulteration, which is Frederick Accum’s book that was published in 1820.



  1. Definitions of Adulterant, Adulteration and Adulterated Foods

When addressing Food Fraud, a source of confusion has been the use of the term Economically Motivated Adulteration, which is abbreviated as EMA. Initially, adulteration was the subject of an 1820 book by Frederick Accum on “A Treatise on Adulteration of Food.”(Accum 1820) There are several challenges when using Accum as a source since his book includes: (1) no definition of adulteration, and (2) no definition of adulterant. The book focuses on methods to detect “counterfeiting and adulteration” of either substituted or lower quality substances. Later, there was the introduction of the term “economic adulteration.” It seems that the first use of this term was in the 1996 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on “Fruit Juice Adulteration.” This report stated, “Although these types of adulteration provide an economic advantage (and are therefore referred to as economic adulteration), they pose little threat to the public’s health and safety” (GAO Fruit Adulteration 1996). That report repeatedly emphasized there was “little threat to the public’s health.”

[To note, a 2018 internet keyword search using Google did not find any – zero – mentions of the term “economic adulteration” before the GAO Fruit Adulteration report published in 1996. Also, another internet keyword search of “economically motivated adulteration” did not find any – zero – results for that term before 2000.]

Next, the May 2009 FDA Public Meeting on Economically Motivated Adulteration invitation was published officially and publically in the Federal Register and included a “Working Definition” of EMA as:

Economically Motivated Adulteration: “Fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production, i.e., for economic gain.”

It is important to note that although this is a formal publication, it is a meeting invitation and not a researched publication or a formal agency conclusion. FDA has continued to use this as a working definition. FDA has had no reason or requirement to review or update this term.

An especially confusing aspect of this working definition of EMA is that the “adulteration” part of the EMA term is defined in conflict with the “Adulterated Foods” Section of the US Food Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938 (FDCA) (FDCA 1938). The FDCA defines “Adulterated Foods” as anything that compromises the product, including a genuine product that spoils, a product where the good manufacturing practices cannot be confirmed, such as stolen goods that have been outside the control of the owner. The FDCA has a separate section on “Misbranded Foods” which refers to labeling and claims. Many researchers incorrectly refer to the “Adulterated and Misbranded Foods” violations as from within one combined section of the act.

The root of the confusion is that the FDA working definition of economically motivated adulteration requires a substance (e.g. adulterant or adulterant-substance) but the FDCA “Adulterated Foods” section does not. This causes additional confusion, such as the challenge of trying to explain to a foreign language translator that an “adulterated product” is not necessarily required to include an “adulterant.”

Later, the US Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA) added more confusion – but maybe some clarity in the ambiguity – in the Preventive Controls Final Rule (FSMA-PC) (FSMA-PC 2015). The original FSMA law does not mention or cite the term EMA so economically motivated adulteration is not a term that FDA must legally include. FSMA-PC refers to economically motivated adulteration but not “EMA” and does not include any mention of the working definition of EMA or the previous public meeting. To review, there are no mentions of “EMA” and 33 uses of the phrase “economically motivated adulteration.” Later the FSMA-PC for Human Foods Qualified Individual training (PCHF-QI) also does not define the term or use “EMA” while introducing new terms including “economically motivated hazard” and “economically motivated food safety hazard.” There would have been none of all this confusion if either of those two terms was used by the FDA EMA meeting planners in the 2009 Public Meeting.

The result is that globally the problem has been referred to as Food Fraud. Occasionally, economically motivated adulteration is used to refer to Food Fraud that occurs in an ingredient with an adulterant-substance. The Food Fraud term is short and easy to say as well as correlates with the related terms of food quality, food safety, and food defense.

Due to all this confusion, there has been a trend to shift from EMA or adulteration to use the term Food Fraud and “adulterant-substance.”

  1. A Treatise on Adulteration of Food by Frederick Accum, published in 1820

Throughout the research on Food Fraud and food adulteration, the key foundational citation is Frederick Accum’s book.

Accum’s book was apparently the first citation for the use of the term “food adulteration.” Frederick Accum published “A Treatise on Adulteration of Food” (Accum 1820). The full title is “A Treatise on Adulteration of Food and Culinary Poisons exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of [various products] and the Methods of Detecting Them.” While this seems like a holistic and all-encompassing reference for the topic, there are no definitions of adulteration, adulterated, adulterant, counterfeit, or contaminant, and he does not use the term substance.

Accum’s statement is:

  • “This treatise, as its title expresses, is intended to exhibit easy methods of detecting the fraudulent adulterations of food, and of other articles, classed either among the necessaries or luxuries of the table; and to put the unwary on their guard against the use of such commodities as are contaminated with substances deleterious to health.”

However, what exactly is adulteration?

Accum did mention “the fraudulent adulterations of food,” “the detection of frauds” and “counterfeit” products, then shifted the focus of the research to test methods for “detection of the adulteration of foods.” He refers to:

  • “The adulteration of food” (interpreted as the intentional deception of usually a lower quality version of the product) and
  • “Counterfeit” (interpreted as the intentional deception of substituting a different product) though here he does not use the phrase “food adulteration” or “adulterant.”

Thus, Accum appears to consider that of the many types of adulteration of food, one type is fraudulent adulteration using a lower quality substance, and another is counterfeiting by substituting another product. The lack of a clear definition has created confusion from the very start of attempting to prevent Food Fraud.

While it seems like a rudimentary and purely academic exercise to review the core definition of the terms, without a common and clear starting point the confusion will continue. Fortunately, here in 2018, the definition and scope of Food Fraud is becoming more clear and harmonized. Efforts by groups such as the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), Codex Alimentarius, International Standards Organization (ISO), and others are publishing definitions that are being required in laws, regulations, certifications, and standards. FFI

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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.