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. 

Seafood
  • 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.
Champagne
  • 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.
Miscellaneous
  • 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.




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