Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Food Fraud

After reading a brief but terrifying article online somewhere, I read "Real Food, Fake Food" by Larry Olmsted.  There was a queue of twenty-two people ahead of me at the local library requesting this book, so it was more than a month before I got my hands on it.  It was well-worth the wait.  I will never, ever order fish at a restaurant again.

Here are the useful takeaways if you don't have time to read the whole book.

Parmesan Cheese
  • "Parmesan" is not a generic type of cheese, but a very specific name for the real thing, properly called Parmigiano-Reggiano, from Parma, Italy.  Growing up a food heathen, I had no idea.  It is known as the "King of Cheeses" for good reason, which none of us who are used to the horrible Kraft imitation product can appreciate.  
  • Kraft "Parmesan" products typically contain 4% cellulose (wood pulp), and some other brands as much as 7.8%.
  • Price point alone is no indication of authenticity; even fakes can cost a bundle.  High end restaurants are often as guilty as neighborhood grocery chains.
  • If you want the real thing, the actual Parmesan from Parma which has been subject to incredibly strict quality controls, look for the full name "Parmigiano-Reggiano," the "Made in Italy" stamp, and the PDO seal (Protected Designation of Origin).  Another dead giveaway is the pin-dot pattern on the rind.  These are buffed off any wheels that fail to make the cut, like tattoos off a washed out gangster. 

  • Not for the faint of heart, seafood is the worst offender when it comes to food fraud.  Enforcement is almost non-existent, penalties are light, profits are huge.
  • Oceana found fraud in 58% of retail outlets and 39% of restaurants in New York City alone, including 100% of sushi restaurants tested.  Think about that the next time you want to eat raw mystery fish.
  • If you order white tuna, you are going to get something completely different 94% of the time.  Most commonly it is escolar, nicknamed "Ex-Lax fish" for the variety of unpleasant digestive effects it can have.  It has been documented to cause waves of food poisonings, has been banned in Japan, and was briefly banned by the FDA in the 1990s.  Now escolar is the best selling and most widely-served fish in the USA, despite the fact that almost no one has ever heard of it. 
  • Forget grouper or red snapper.  Unless you see the whole fish with the head on, they are almost never real.
  • The other most common impostor is Cambodian ponga, a Asian catfish which is usually farmed with dangerous farming practices, often using unapproved or banned antibiotics and other drugs.  You've probably encountered it wearing a name-tag which read "American catfish," or "sole," or "flouder," or "cod." 
  • If you're pregnant, avoid fish altogether.  You have no way of knowing if your low-mercury fish is actually a high-mercury fish in disguise.  It happens a lot.
  • In one of the worst examples of dangerous fish fraud, a couple in Chicago unwittingly poisoned themselves in 2007 with "monkfish" which turned out to be pufferfish.  Fortunately, they survived.
  • Be very suspicious of unremarkable white fish fillets.  They could be almost anything.
  • Transshipment to obscure the true country of origin is a widespread problem.  For instance, when seafood from China is banned, exports from neighboring countries like Thailand and Indonesia suddenly suspiciously increase.
  • Thailand supplies the majority of the shrimp consumed in America, mostly from drug-laced shrimp farms, some of which are manned with slave labor acquired by human trafficking.  In many cases, these farms have been built at the complete expense of the mangrove habitat so important to those regions.
  • Stick with domestic wild-caught shrimp.  It is the gold standard in the rest of the world, which is why so much of it is exported while we American idiots eat imported slave-produced crap shrimp from Thailand.
  • Farmed salmon are routinely fed artificial dyes to make them pink, because they have not had the benefit of having krill in their diet.  This artificial color tends to leak out when you cook it.
  • Fish farming is illegal in Alaska, so if you can verify Alaska as the true origin of any seafood product, you're getting the good stuff.
  • If you order lobster, make sure it is a whole lobster.  Otherwise, your lobster roll or lobster linguine or lobster taco is more likely to contain "langostino," a large prawn (or sometimes a crab) the FDA quietly allowed to be called "langostino lobster" at the request of Rubio's Restaurants, Inc. in 2005.  Red Lobster and Long John Silver's gleefully jumped on that bandwagon, much to the chagrin of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council.  Worse, sometimes your "langostino lobster" is neither lobster nor even langostino, but cheap and overabundant Chinese crawfish which are subject to huge anti-dumping tariffs precisely because no one wants them.  A double-whammy.
  • Scallops are often saturated with water and phosphates to make them bigger, whiter, and heavier, making them tasteless and sad.  The practice is so common that "dry scallops" sell for a higher price, but even they aren't completely "dry," only saturated up to the legal limit.  Look for scallops that are ivory, not white.
  • Domestic catfish are the only ones that may legally be called catfish, and farmed domestic catfish is actually one of the safer fish options around.
  • Look for third-party certifications, for instance the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for wild-caught fish, and Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) for farmed.  Also good to see are the Gulf Wild seal and the Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested certification.  
  • Buy American whenever possible.  This country actually has some of the highest standards of seafood production in the world.
  • Order whole fish at restaurants, or don't order fish at all.  Restaurants routinely fake fish.
  • Label terms like "fresh," "natural," and "organic" have no legal definition in this context.  "Sushi grade" and "sashimi grade" are equally meaningless. 
  • The retail leaders in seafood accountability are Whole Foods and (less predictably) big box stores like Walmart, Costco, and BJ's.

Olive and Truffle Oils

  • Olive oil is highly perishable, more like fruit juice than oil, with a very limited optimal shelf life.  The majority of the olive oil on the market is rancid.
  • There are three grades of olive oil, extra virgin, virgin, and the dregs, also called "lamp oil."  Of course, all producers love to label their product "Extra Virgin" regardless of quality.
  • The most common methods of olive oil fraud are diluting it with other oils (such as sunflower or soybean), or diluting it with lower grade olive oils (usually chemically refined, which negates the touted health benefits).  Often peanut oil is used, an obvious problem for people with allergies. 
  • Carryover, the practice of diluting fresh extra virgin oil with the previous year's (now rancid) "extra virgin" oil, is widespread.
  • Spain, not Italy, is currently the worlds largest olive oil producer.
  • While very good olive oil is made in Italy, the majority of "Italian" extra virgin olive oil we see in this country is bad.  Italy has a hard time making enough of the good stuff to supply its own domestic demand, but Italian exporters saw an opportunity to exploit the country's reputation for quality.  They regularly buy up large quantities of inferior olive oil from many different countries so they can bottle it, stamp "Product of Italy" on it, and sell it to Americans who don't know any better.  Leave it on the shelf.
  • You get real extra virgin olive oil in restaurants less than half of the time.
  • Pompeian brand is bad news; it almost always fails quality checks.
  • "100% Extra Virgin" means nothing.  There is almost no enforcement of quality checks.
  • The USDA's standards for extra virgin olive oil are more permissive than they should be, but the majority of available brands still fail when tested.
  • California has the strictest quality standards in the US, so Californian olive oils are a better bet than most.
  • Don't ever buy plain "olive oil" unless you plan on oiling your bicycle with it.  It is that "lamp oil" which has been chemically refined to make it barely edible and mixed with very small amounts of virgin or extra virgin oil.  Steer clear of "Pure Olive Oil;" it doth protest too much, if you know what I mean.
  • Australia currently leads the world in extra virgin olive oil quality standards, and has banned confusing terms like "premium," "super," "light," and "pure."  
  • "Cold-pressed" or "first cold press" are more often than not meaningless phrases to pretty up the bottle.  The majority of olives are processed by centrifuge today.
  • Regarding truffle oil, the only thing to say about it is that it is always completely fake.  There is no real truffle oil, not only because it would be prohibitively expensive, but because the truffle flavor doesn't carry well into oil.  It's every bit as genuine as artificial vanilla flavor.  Just leave it.
Some real food comes from some very distinct places and are subject to rigorous standards, especially if they are named after that place.  These labels are your friends.

Kobe Beef
  • There is almost no genuine Kobe beef anywhere in the USA.  The USDA banned all import of Japanese beef in 2001 due to concerns about mad cow disease.  The ban was lifted in 2006, reinstated in 2010, lifted in 2012.  Even though the ban is lifted, only a minuscule amount of the genuine article is imported each year, and then only to a very select few high-end restaurants, NEVER to individual consumers.  Despite this, alleged Kobe beef seems to be everywhere.
  • Real Kobe beef is so saturated with fat that it is only served in tiny portions, and resembles butter more than steak.  Real Kobe beef would NEVER be made into steaks, burgers, sliders, or hot dogs because they would be gross.  Don't pay extra for common domestic beef masquerading as Kobe.
  • Wagyu beef is trickier, with a very wobbly definition everywhere but in Japan.  Could be good, could be crap.
  • Real Champagne comes from Champagne, France, and nowhere else.  The traditional quality standards give new meaning to the word rigid.  Everything else is just sparkling wine and not worth a Champagne price tag.
  • There is no such thing as a red Champagne.
  • Real Champagne gets bubbles from natural fermentation in the bottle, not from injected carbon dioxide.
  • In 2006, the USA finally granted some legal protection to region-specific wines which had a long and inglorious tradition of counterfeiting in America, including (among others) Champagne, port, Burgundy, Chablis, sherry, sauternes, and Madeira.  The catch was that all the offending wineries which preexisted the agreement were grandfathered in.  So, nothing really changed.
  • Korbel is probably one of the worst offenders, and their product isn't great.  Don't buy it.
Imitation Cheese
  • If you want good domestic cheese, look for the ones that aren't pretending to be cheese specific to somewhere else.  That list includes but is not limited to Parmesan, Gruyere, Emmental (Swiss), feta, Asiago, Meunster (the real thing is Munster), provolone, fontina, and Gorgonzola.  There have been some long legal battles fought over these names, fought on this end mostly by Kraft.  No surprise there.
  • Any real cheese should only have a few ingredients, mainly milk, salt, and rennet, maybe some enzymes and spices.  The rest are probably more accurately "cheese products."
Grass-fed Beef
  • The only thing beef requires to be called "grass-fed" is to be fed grass at least once during its lifetime.  Even feedlot cattle eat grass at least once when they are very young.
  • It has been common practice for a long time to "finish" otherwise completely grass-fed cattle on grain before market, negating many of the health benefits.
  • Look for the "100% Grass Fed" label, one of the few the USDA still enforces, requiring an optional process verification.  It means all grass all the time.
  • The label "Natural" can be put on even the worst example of feedlot beef because it refers to the minimal processing, not the quality of the animal.  The term "naturally raised," however, has been defined by the USDA to mean no antibiotics, no growth promotants, and no feeding of animal byproducts, but not necessarily completely grass-fed. 
  • The terms "pasture raised," "pasture finished," "no additives," "no animal by-products," "free range," "free roaming," "green fed," "humane," and "pesticide free" are not defined or enforced, and are often false.
  • Buy bison when you can.  That market hasn't been exploited yet.  There are no such thing as bison feed lots.
  • Honey is often fake, often adulterated, sometimes toxic, and often transshipped from suspect countries.
  • Some honeys are left with pollen in, others are ultra-filtered.  Incidentally, ultra-filtering removes the pollen which is the only thing that can identify the honey's origin.  
  • A lot of extremely suspect Chinese honey is ultra-filtered and transshipped through places like India.  Chinese honey is often heavily cut with corn syrup.  Sometimes, the bees are fed corn syrup.  Often it is contaminated with drugs like chloramphenicol, which can lead to a potentially fatal bone marrow disorder.  Chinese honey is specifically banned for import into the USA because of its abysmal quality, but it gets in anyhow, just like Chinese seafood.
  • The FDA created voluntary grades for honey, Grade A, Grade B, and Grade C.  Because they are voluntary and completely unenforced, they mean nothing.  What admit that it's Grade C when you can get away with calling it Grade A?
  • Manuka honey, made exclusively in New Zealand, is rarely real when you encounter it in the rest of the world. 
  • Avoid supermarket brand honey and buy local.
  • Coffee has problems, but I don't drink it, so I didn't pay much attention.
  • Most fruit juice is mostly apple juice no matter what the flavor, and most of the apple juice in America comes from contaminated Chinese apple juice concentrates. 
  • Many juice additives are not required to be disclosed on the label.  For orange juice, this can include lemon juice, high-fructose corn syrup, mandarin juice, grapefruit juice, paprika extract, and beet sugar.  Apple juice has a long list as well.
  • Supermarket tomatoes have been bred for durability in shipping, not for flavor.  They are picked green and gassed with ethylene to "ripen" them for sale.  What I did not know is that the ethylene triggers only a reddening response, not any actual ripening.  As a country, we're used to eating red green tomatoes.  Look for vine ripened local tomatoes or grow your own.
  • Ethylene gassing is also used to allow bananas to ship safely.  While the practice isn't exactly unhealthy, we would apparently be blown away by the flavor of a tree-ripened banana.
  • Maple syrup shares many of the same problems as honey.  Most maple flavored products don't contain any maple syrup at all, but apparently some combination of high-fructose corn syrup and/or maltodextrin, fenugreek and anise.
Be ye warned.

SHOP HERE: Zingerman's mail order.  It's the good stuff.

Friday, August 19, 2016

DIY Dog Furniture

I saw this online and immediately wanted one.  Andy has a standard dog crate big enough for a golden retriever.  It lives under the dining room table and is just an awkward eyesore.  It would be great to have one that doubled as a classy end-table.

This particular one is listed for $105, although the nicer ones can run $200-$400.  Looking back, maybe we should have just bought it, because in the end we only saved about $50 by doing it ourselves.  The original plan was to only spend $20 and seemed like a stroke of brilliance. 

We begin with an old cabinet of unknown provenance that we acquired for $20 at Goodwill six years ago.

Until lately, it had been used to store our DVDs.  Now it will be transformed into Lady Andromache's doggie boudoir.  

First step was to remove the shelf and pull out the support pins with pliers.  Easy.  Next we had to cut windows into the doors.  That was a bit more complicated because the only power tool we own is a drill.  I used it like a woodpecker, and after three days of drilling and chiseling, we had fabulous open spaces.  

A little wood stain and varnish, and it looks great.  Just don't look too closely.

Anyway, we added fencing to the front doors by cutting up the divider that came with Andy's big crate.  We had never used it, and it was about time it justified the space it was taking up in the closet.  I attached it be means of screws and big washers for lack of any better ideas.  Then I pried the rotten cardboard off the back.

I was still undecided about how to finish the back when we went to Home Depot this morning.  The original plan was to use a panel from the portable dog fence on the patio, but that proved impractical.  After wandering around for a while, we found a pet grille meant for a screen door.  At $35, that was what pushed us over budget, but it worked out perfectly after trimming it down to size.

Scored some 3" high density foam for the bottom today at the craft store.  That stuff is usually $50/yard, but we only needed 13" AND we brought our 50% off coupon.  So, $9.

I covered the foam with part of Andy's old fleece blanket and secured it with safety pins underneath because I didn't have the patience to sew it into a zipper cover.  Took out the door magnets.  The front was retrofitted with a hook latch between the handles, and it was finished.

Andy hasn't seen it yet.  I hope she likes it when she gets home from doggie daycare.  Johanna was intrigued by the whole process.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Inversion of Victim-Blaming

This rant has been building for a while, but I'll try to keep it brief.

My husband shared an article with me this morning from National Review about another incident of overblown outrage over the suggestion that rapists roam at large on college campuses.  I thought that was just an established fact at this point.  Apparently a warning emailed to students about a rash of drugged drinks and the suggestion that all female students spare the time and effort to take some precautions was "unacceptable" and an example of "rape culture."

Somehow the possibility that women should have to consider and guard against the possibility of rape has become insulting.  It is not victim-blaming to suggest that women do bear some responsibility for their own safety.  That includes planning, taking precautions, and being aware of your surroundings.  If that equals rape culture, then rape culture has been around since the dawn of time and isn't going anywhere.  Might as well adapt to it.

These outraged students need to remember what real rape culture and real victim-blaming look like, a time when it was considered impossible to rape any woman who could be proved to have venereal disease, because that was proof positive that she was just a slut.  See the documentary "Girl 27" for more on that.

I was listening to NPR the other day, and the topic was domestic violence and what we as a society can do about it.  One caller dared to suggest that women do in fact bear some responsibility to avoid attaching themselves to obviously violent and abusive men.  He was immediately dismissed as a victim-blamer and completely disregarded.

The world is a dangerous place.  No amount of public awareness this side of Utopia is going to make the ancient social ills of mankind vanish into the ether.  Rapists gonna rape.  The suggestion that all women are helpless floozies who must be protected by society at large against their own carelessness is insulting and infantilizing.

That said, the apparently outrageous email which sparked this debate is actually full of good basic advice.  Watch out for your friends, watch your drink, keep your wits about you.  The idea of "the integrity of your cup" is not a joke; my husband tells me it is common advice in the military to just get a new drink if you went to the bathroom and didn't bring it with you.  Don't trust anyone else to have your immediate safety as his first priority.  That is your job.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Continuing Adventures in Geekdom

The latest (and surprisingly expensive) project has been to extensively revise and actually print my past writing projects, which so far has amounted to nearly 900 pages.  Printer toner can run into money.  Unfortunately, since my mind seems only to conceive multi-part epics, my past writing projects are also my current projects, which just complicates the issue considering our current unreliable tech situation.  I have very distinct ideas about which fonts I want to use for the text and chapter titles, and those fonts currently only exist on my geriatric laptop.  I would download them onto the desktop, but because it is primarily a gaming computer it was not equipped with a word processor, and the fonts available on Google Docs just don't cut it.  So, I'm hoping I can somehow finish the last approximately thirty chapters of this Thranduil saga I started TWELVE YEARS ago before the laptop finally gives up the ghost for good and takes all my formatting with it.  That's the goal.  We'll see if Miss JoJo will deign to give me enough free time to make it happen.

In that vein, since it's been so long already and because I'm not likely to stop being a fanatical self-proclaimed Thranduil expert in the future, I've decided to actually spend money on it.  I think my family might disown me if I opted for a tattoo, but I found someone who makes customizable Tengwar rings on Etsy and I think I have to have one.  I'll get it somehow, even if I have to live on potatoes and oatmeal until I accumulate enough budget points.  Fortunately for the dog, I'm not selfish enough to dip into her knee surgery fund.

While we're on the subject, here's some fan art by ItanHimitsu I think is worth showcasing, even though it also features Tauriel.  He looks generally tired and worn down, as you would expect after everything he's had to put up with.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Ok, that was a nice blog vacation.  We got completely caught up in the day-to-day baby business and essentially forgot about blogging.  Now I think I'll actually make an effort to resuscitate it.

Also, a miracle happened!  The after eight months of lying in a coma collecting dust, the laptop lives!  It is woefully outdated, and needs a fresh operating system if I am ever to be able to download program updates, but it is still sufficient for my fanfiction writing needs.  Writing is something that also hasn't happened for nearly a year, but that was because the laptop took the last chapters to its grave, and the prospect of writing them again from scratch was just too disheartening.  Fortunately all data has been recovered and all the old projects have been revived.  Writing makes me feel like an independent adult rather than simply slave labor for an infant princess.