“It’s clear that seafood fraud isn’t just a fluke – it’s rampant across New York,” said State Attorney General Barbara Underwood in the wake of a recent shocking investigation. “Supermarkets are the last line of defense before a phony fish ends up as family dinner, and they have a duty to do more. Yet our report makes clear that New Yorkers may too often be the victim of mislabeling.”
Seven years ago, here at Forbes I wrote about why most Kobe beef sold in the US isn’t Kobe beef at all, but rather a huge rip-off of expense account diners, and why paying top dollar for so-called “wagyu” can also be a scam. That story remains extremely popular, has been read over 1.7 million times, and spawned a few updates. The most recent one is here.
More recently I wrote an entire book on the subject of food scams, including less rarefied and more everyday foods, from cheese and coffee to fish, seafood and champagne. Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It was named one of the best books of the year by People Magazine, and became a New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal bestseller, and was a bestseller in Canada too. It was released in paperback with some updated info.
The reason these kinds of reads are so popular is because they affect us all, at home, in the supermarket and especially when eating out in restaurants. If you care about what you eat, what it tastes like, what it costs, and your health, the only real consumer protection you have is to be informed.
Some areas of food fraud have improved, and as an eternal optimist I am always seeing a light at the end of a very dark tunnel, and have a glass half full, rather than half empty outlook, but realistically, food fraud is here to stay. After all, it rival the world’s oldest profession, and has been a fixture in society since ancient times. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all suffered from it, food fraud was rampant in the Middle Ages, and it remains common today – only more organized, institutionalized and shockingly, in many cases it’s legal.
There have been several high-profile fake food stories breaking in the news in the past couple of months, so it is a good time to revisit this topic and alert you to some of the most common, current or blatant problems with our food supply. For a much more in-depth look, along with detailed shopping and menu tips, read my book. It’s not all bad new – it includes plenty of delicious ideas, advice and recipes that let the best real foods shine.
Last year I wrote a piece here at Forbes about the epidemic of honey fraud, and just last month another about the shocking prevalence of fake old collectible whiskey in the collector market. Here are five other especially troublesome fake food issues to be wary about:
1. Fake Fish: Three months ago the New York State Attorney General’s Office released a scathing report on the high levels of seafood fraud found at supermarkets across the state (they DNA tested fish bought at 29 different chains and 155 locations). The findings got a lot of press, and New Yorkers were shocked, but they should not have been – this has been an extremely common and well documented problem nationwide for many years. It is called “species substitution,” and basically works like this: you go into a store and order a high-quality white fish that is expensive, like red snapper, which can cost $23 or more per pound. Because most white fish looks exactly the same once it is cleaned and trimmed into filets, stores (and restaurants) can sell you almost anything – and usually do. Instead of that $23 red snapper you might get tilefish, tilapia or some farmed Asian catfish you never heard of that costs more like $2 or $3 per pound. The seller pockets the difference. Guess what? With red snapper this happens more than nine out of ten times.
This kind of bait and switch is even easier in restaurants, where the fish is cooked and usually presented under sauce, in breading, seasoned or otherwise disguised. Past studies have found a nationwide red snapper fraud rate of more than 90%, though the NY AG found it to “only” be 67% – more than two thirds of the time. That’s the good news. Consumers who paid good money for lemon sole got something completely different 88% of the time. More than a quarter of the pricier, more desirable, drug free and arguably healthier “wild” salmon was actually farmed. In each case the attorney general’s report noted that, “The substitutes were often cheaper, less desirable, and less environmentally sustainable species.” I wrote more about seafood problems here at Forbes.
Similar reports have found similarly horrific results all across the country for years. And not just across the country – just two weeks ago The Guardian reported that fish and chip shops all across the UK claimed to be selling typical fish species were in fact serving spiny dogfish – endangered in Europe – and hammerhead sharks – endangered globally.
2. Fake Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO): No single food has gotten as much negative press for fraud and fakery issues as olive oil, the subject of more such academic and research papers over the past three decades than anything else, culminating in a big 60 Minutes expose a couple of years ago that garnered national attention The silver lining was that as a result of all this attention things seemed to be getting better on several fronts. More informed consumers have been able to shop better (this one is actually pretty easy to solve yourself once you know the tips, the red flags and what to look for); the availability of real EVOO from more places and in more stores has increased; and the Canadian government clearly and quickly demonstrated that stepping up enforcement of existing laws and regulations (something the FDA purposefully chose not to do in this country for decades) can be effective in dramatically reducing fraud rates.
There are two big problems with EVOO fraud. The first is economic harm, meaning you get ripped off, paying a high price for quality you don’t get. This is also flavor harm and arguably health harm, since real EVOO is both incredibly delicious and one of the healthiest fats, with positive attributes, and when it’s not real you can lose both of these benefits. But the bigger health concern is that in the past, the cheaper adulterants used to cut EVOO and increase profit margins have included potentially serious allergens such as peanut oil and soy oil, both expressly prohibited from ever being in EVOO. But when they are there illegally and don’t appear on the ingredient list (only olives!) that’s a real health risk, and that’s why in 2016 Congress finally stepped in.
In the wake of the 60 Minutes segment, my book, and much other press, Congress finally ordered the FDA to do its job and step up inspections of imported olive oil, which in this country is the vast majority of olive oil. That seemed like a game changer, but occurred before the current Administration began implementing anti-consumer policies, leaving countless government jobs vacant, and more recently shutting down the government entirely.
The EVOO issue is now making headlines again, due to the poor olive harvest in key oil producing nations including Portugal, Greece, and Italy, the largest olive oil exporter (and importer) in the world. Italian production was down about 60% in 2018, to a new all time low. As a result, olive oil process are up and that typically incentivizes cheats. In recent weeks, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency warned consumers of a possible coming uptick in EVOO fraud as a result.
3. Fake Organic: In 2017 the Washington Post did a series of articles detailing how huge quantities of grains, mainly corn and soybeans, falsely labeled as “organic” were entering this country. One 36-million-ton soybean shipment miraculously became organic only when landing in the U.S., increasing its market value by millions while retaining all the pesticides and other things that are not in real organics. Just the shipments discovered, which may well be the tip of an iceberg, represented 6% of annual corn imports and 4% of soybeans. Worse yet, much of this goes into animal feed for meat that is then wrongly labeled “organic,” and the entire problem snowballs. In my book, I note that organic labels have historically been erroneously/fraudulently applied to lots of other foods, from olive oil to honey to seafood. The Post also did an unrelated story the same year on why organic milk produced in this country may not actually be organic.
All this doesn’t mean you should not buy organic, but you do need to be more wary – and more picky. Domestically produced organics are theoretically more reliable because there is more oversight, and penalties for fraud are easier to enforce. Some foods benefit consumers more by being organic than others, and that is where I recommend you focus your dollars, since organic almost always carries higher prices. For example, in my book I explain why organic tomatoes generally taste better, even if you don’t care about pesticides and chemical fertilizers and the like. Because bananas have the smallest price premium for organic of any popular food, you almost might as well buy organic (at my supermarket they are often exactly the same price). On the other hand, milk can more than double in price by being organic (or labelled organic), one of the steepest premiums.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group annually compiles a list of the dirtiest and cleanest foods in terms of pesticide use. Avoiding pesticides is a key reason many consumers buy organic, so it matters more on “dirty” foods and less on “clean ones.” The cleanest are corn, pineapples, avocados and onions, so there’s less need to pay extra – organic pineapples costs about 70% more (and seem to have a higher rate of fraudulent labeling anyway). On the flip side, strawberries are among the “dirtiest” foods in terms of pesticides – they are very susceptible to bugs, need a lot of spraying, and are harder to wash than other produce (you can’t scrub them). Most experts recommend buying organic strawberries even though the price increase is substantial (if you’re using them for smoothies or baking, they can be appreciably cheaper frozen). Other dirty foods that may be worth splurging on organic for include spinach and smaller thin-skinned fruits: apples, pears, peaches, grapes, and cherries.
4. Fake Sushi: Seafood is the most fraud ridden and convoluted sector of our food world, but even so, sushi stands out as especially bad, the worst of the worst, and it is one of the only examples of a solely restaurant/prepared food scam – you’ll run into issues with EVOO and red snapper and ersatz champagne at retail and eating out, but very few people make their own sushi, and almost all of it in this country is ordered, not prepared by consumers. The sushi restaurant industry has the worst imaginable track record for deceit, and numerous studies have shown that the vast majority (in some studies all or nearly all eateries in cities as large as LA) have at least one mislabeled lie on their menu. In a large sampling of New York City sushi joints of all price joints, only one, Nobu, came through with flying colors for accuracy – and in many parts of the city there is a sushi spot on every block! The results of these investigations is shocking, and I wrote about some of this earlier here at Forbes.
Sushi fraud is so prevalent it is hard to avoid – expect at top shelf spots like Nobu and the very high priced, small omakase places that fly in their fish daily, mainly found in New York, LA and Vegas. But here are a couple of tips. As a rule, if you see “white tuna’ on a menu at a sushi place, which you often do, it is an immediate red flag. Legally there is no such species as white tuna, which seems to have been manufactured by the sushi industry (you never see it a regular seafood place) and is always a fraudulent claim, but worse, many times when DNA tested, white tuna is no kind of tuna at all. The same species substitution described above is rampant in the sushi world. I also recommend avoiding anything chopped up, such as most “spicy tuna” rolls, and in general, nigiri style (where you see an actual piece of fish) is a better choice than rolls, where you see a pencil eraser sized one dimensional piece of fish that can be anything. If you want to learn a whole lot more about sushi read my book, but be warned that like me, you may have to stop eating all but the most expensive sushi.
5. Fake Wine & Champagne: A few years ago I did a magazine story on “champagne brunches” that actually serve champagne and I could not find the five I needed to fill out the piece in this entire country. I had to go as far afield as Tokyo to come up with the slate. But the problem is much worse than bogus brunch menus. The idea that names have real meaning when it comes to wine is hundreds of years old, and it predates the United State’s wine industry altogether.
For instance, Burgundy is not just a place in France: when it refers to red wine it has a detailed and complex legal and quality definition. Among other things, red Burgundy can be made from nothing, but 100% pinot noir grapes grown in certain designated places esteemed for their quality. And when it comes to Champagne, we may be talking about the most quality regulated food product in the world – not only do the grapes have to be grown in very particular approved high-quality regions, but laws stipulate how densely they are planted, what varieties can be used, and even who is allowed to trim them. Every step of production, most notably fermentation in the bottle and long-term ageing, is also heavily regulated. Because of this obsessively regulated quality, there literally is no such thing a bad real champagne, and it should in theory be one of the most reliable food labels on earth.
But none of this is true of copycat wines made (legally) in the U.S., including Champagne, which doesn’t have to be made from good grapes, from champagne grapes, fermented in the bottle or aged at all. The widely held notion that “champagne” can only come from France should be true (it is in the rest of the civilized world), but in this country it is not (and don’t bother writing in to say that I’m confusing this with “methode champenoise,” because that is simply incorrect – there are vast quantities of wine produced in places like California and upstate New York labeled champagne). Also, much of the wine here that is claimed to be produced with the “methode champenoise” is not, and the very term methode champenoise is equally legally irrelevant in the U.S.
But it is not just Champagne, Burgundy, Chianti, Port and many other wines widely recognized around the world as coming from specific places in specific countries made under specific rules that are knocked off, often very poorly here. Even domestic wines are full of consumer trickery. Think a wine labelled from a designated American Viticultural Area (AVA) such as Pasa Robles (there are tons, this is just one example) has to be filled with wine from that region? Think again. Believe that a “vintage” wine from a great year has to be full of wine from that actual harvest? Nope. Think that a particular prestigious estate or vineyard on the label means all the wine came from there? You’re getting warmer, it’s actually required to contain 95% (which is good but just about every foreign designation, like real “Burgundy,” is 100%).
Your best bets? Labels that say Estate Bottled, which require 100% of the grapes to be from the claimed AVA. Alternatively, some high-quality regions, like Napa, offer their own higher standard – look for 100% Napa Grown on the label. Wine label terminology can be very tricky, and I go into detail on it to help consumers in my book.