Food adulteration, whether motivated by economic fraud or malicious food tampering, can have serious effects on health and safety. Today, people are more aware than ever of the risks of food adulteration, and updated regulations reflect the need to have more protection at the government and industry level. For instance the Food Safety Modernization Act in the US mandates that food safety plans contain strategies to lessen the risk of food adulteration, with businesses held liable should adulterated products be released into commerce. When a substance is termed an ‘adulterant’, stronger penalties apply, including the possibility of criminal liability.
There are a huge number of possible substances that may be used for food adulteration, and the list continues to expand. Adulterants are often selected based on their ability to increase the apparent value of a product, their ability to be substituted for a more expensive ingredient or product, ability to mask certain substances or their risk (for instance, certain strains of naturally-occurring E. coli are deemed adulterants under food law, making it illegal to sell products containing these organisms).
In the laboratory setting, unknown adulterants are treated somewhat like mystery samples. Sometimes the answer is simple, however the nature of food adulteration is that the substance may be new or novel, and as a result the analysis is not designed to detect it.