If you’ve ever walked down a Manhattan street and seen a Louis Vuitton handbag for sale on a folding table for $75, you know it’s very unlikely that the bag is real. It’s counterfeit, a knockoff, a replica, a fake. If it were a real Louis Vuitton, you wouldn’t be seeing it on the corner of 14th and Broadway, and you’d be dropping at least $500 for it. Good thing that doesn’t happen with food, right? Well, it does. Welcome to the confusing world of fake food.

When you buy a bottle of Coca-Cola, you expect it to be bottled at a Coca-Cola distributor and not a rinsed-out “genuine Coca-Cola bottle” filled with a “cola-like carbonated beverage” (United States v. Petrosian). The International Trademark Association’s 2004 report on counterfeiting detailed at least 10 food and beverage counterfeiting operations across 8 states, including the 45,000 pounds of counterfeit baby formula in California that the FDA uncovered in 1995.

An estimated $18 million in “counterfeit wine” was sold around the world annually in 2004. No wonder scientists from the University of Seville in Spain developed a process for “fingerprinting” champagne and other wines, which when run against a sample of 35 sparkling wines was 100 percent accurate in distinguishing champagne from cava.

At the benign end of the spectrum is a phenomenon one might call associative packaging—the way a book publisher will mimic a best-seller’s jacket design to suggest a new book has similar appeal. If a product is popular but there’s not enough of it, some retailers may try to create a substitute. For instance, a high-end national gourmet shop might pick up an item like Alziari olive oil, produced in Nice, France. But Alziari is a small operation. “So that national shop will outsource it and try to come up with something comparable in taste and packaging,” with oils from various nearby regions, says Joe Macaluso of Chefs Warehouse. It’s not exactly mislabeled, as it doesn’t claim to be Alziari. But the label is reminiscent enough of the Alziari label for a consumer to make the association.

Sly substitution is another variation. Most grocery store “saffron,” for example, is actually safflower—similar in color, sort of similar in taste. Then there’s the “Rolflex” phenomenon: the fake item with the slightly different name. Kraft makes a product called parmesan cheese that’s definitively not parmigiano-reggiano. Primo taglio turns out prosciutto that was never air dried by Apennine breezes. But to any sophisticated consumer, this is not deception but choice: Do you need to drop $25 per pound for prosciutto di Parma, or will the primo taglio suffice at half that price?

Moving up the deceit scale, some products are altered to be perceived as more valuable. Porcini mushrooms are a wonderful delicacy, provided they haven’t been soaked in water to add to their weight (and thus their cost). They should also be small, and when you slice into them, their meat should be white and dry. The big ones are past their flavor, says Mario Ascione, executive chef and owner of San Francisco’s Caffè Macaroni. They also typically soak up water, so worms start to grow inside—which is why they’re sometimes jokingly referred to as porcini bolognese (porcini with meat).

When prices get higher, though, it becomes outright fraud. When you pay $50 an ounce for a truffle, you expect to be buying a black Périgord truffle (Tuber melanosporum) or a white truffle from Alba. But the heat wave of 2004 cut Périgord’s harvest down from 50 tons to 9 tons, and as the dollar stays weak against the euro, some restaurants and gourmet shops are passing off Chinese truffles (Tuber indicum) as French. But while the Chinese black truffle looks just like its French cousin, it tastes nothing like it. France is conducting random DNA testing on truffles, with a $1,300 fine for anyone caught trying to deceive consumers with Chinese truffles. Italy’s Consorzio, a government group that regulates the quality of agricultural products, has agents who travel to importers to ensure that truffles from Italy are actually what’s being sold (and assess fines if they’re not).

In a case like truffles, you can at least rely on your nose. Some counterfeiters use a chemical to simulate the truffle smell, but if you know what you’re sniffing for, you won’t be fooled. (Fake “truffle oil” is usually sunflower oil flavored with the chemical facsimile.) Not only are the two odors detectably different, but the Alba truffle fills a room in 20 minutes, while the fake packs a wallop right away and fades. “If you bring a truffle from Piemonte into a room, especially the white ones from Alba—the best and most expensive in the world—10 to 20 minutes later the moist, fungus smell will have taken over the room,” says Ascione. “It’s like if you walked inside a dark, humid cave; it’s that kind of freshness. That’s the truffle smell.”

With some products, however, it’s more difficult to pinpoint origin. Coldiretti, the Italian farmers’ association, claims that 7 out of 10 Italian products in the United States are not the real deal—translating to $1.4 billion in true Italian exports and $3.5 billion for the fakes, including wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, cheese, tomato sauce, and ham.

Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) label food products and wines to ensure that each item is produced in the specified region and that the established standards are met. You’ll find the labeling and governmental seals at the tops of bottles of chianti and balsamic vinegar and the markings on the sides of parmigiano-reggiano and hams from Parma.

But that doesn’t stop companies from slapping “Made in Italy” on a bottle. “A lot of olive oil, especially extra virgin, is expensive to sell in the U.S. and worldwide market. So a company will bring in oil from different parts of Europe, package it in Italy, and ship it to those markets where customers are looking for Italian olive oil,” says Ascione. “But bottled or packaged in Italy doesn’t mean that it’s from there. If you don’t see the DOC or DOCG labeling, it’s not going to be what you think you’re getting. Look at its origin, not where it’s bottled.”

High price is a gauge of the authenticity of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. “Consumers have to think about it: What’s the process for producing something like olive oil?” says Albert Katz of Napa Valley’s Katz and Company. “From the growing of the olives, taking care of them, picking them, processing them, bottling the oil—does that cost only $5? No. The consumer should [consider] the product and the process and say, ‘That can’t be done.’ ”

If a bottle of balsamic vinegar costs less than $100, it’s probably not the real thing. Authentic balsamic vinegar is only the “must” (the unfermented juice), typically of white trebbiano grapes, aged for at least 12 years in a succession of wooden casks. It contains no red wine vinegar. Rather, it’s dark and syrupy. And it costs an arm and a leg. But that’s not what most people have in their pantries. As long as they know the difference and are OK using supermarket balsamic to dress their salads, it’s fine.

In fact, sometimes a fake is better than OK. Piquillo peppers traditionally come from the Ebro River Valley in northern Spain. Macaluso of Chefs Warehouse, though, says that “the ones from Peru are as good as if not better than the ones from Spain. And white asparagus from Thailand or Peru tends to be better than the white asparagus from China.”

The easiest solution is to choose a reputable retailer. “If your grocer can’t answer your question about the authenticity of a product,” says Katz, “then go to someone who can.”

Photography by Kevin Twomey

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