When you go to the restaurant or grocery store, food fraud is probably the last thing on your mind. In his fantastic book, “Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It,” Larry Olmsted, an investigative journalist and food critic, sheds much needed light on this important topic.
It’s loaded with solid information revealing just how prevalent food fraud actually is — and offers helpful guidance on how to make sure you’re actually getting what you’re paying for.
“I’ve been writing about food and travel for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines around the world for over 20 years,” he says. “In my travels or whenever I go someplace, I try to eat what the locals eat, whatever the specialties are.
I came upon a few cases … where I would come back and try to replicate those foods either on my own or in restaurants in the United States, and it never really tasted right or looked right.
Particularly, in the case of Kobe beef. I did a little research into why I couldn’t get any good Kobe beef here. I learned quickly there’s no [real] Kobe beef here. All the restaurants pretending to serve Japanese Kobe beef were lying; every single one in the country.
I wrote a story about that for Forbes. It got a phenomenal response and I ended up just continuing to research this topic and it evolved into this book.”
Food Fraud Is Massively Prevalent
There’s a general impression that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is policing and regulating food fraud, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
The main focus of the FDA is the ingredient label, making sure it’s accurate. They also track food-related disease outbreaks. The agency does not, however, dedicate any significant amount of resources to the safety and integrity of the foods you eat every day.
One of the most pervasive areas of fraud is the seafood industry. It’s quite disheartening, as seafood (when fresh and free of toxins) is one of the healthiest foods on the planet that we all should be eating more of.
Yet Olmsted’s investigation reveals the likelihood of actually getting what’s stated on the menu when you eat at a restaurant is miniscule.
“You’re right, people should be eating seafood,” Olmsted says. “It’s probably the healthiest source of animal protein out there. There’s lots of seafood that is good for you. It’s just a matter of making sure you’re getting what you’re buying. That’s really the issue.
A great example is salmon. The American people have demonstrated — both in their buying habits and when polled — that they greatly prefer wild caught salmon to farmed, even if it’s more expensive.
The problem is, sometimes you buy wild-caught salmon, you pay a premium for it, and you’re still getting farmed salmon.
If your goal was to avoid the things that are used in aquaculture, which include vaccines and antibiotics, then you’re really getting doubly defrauded. You’re getting ripped off financially and you’re getting ripped off, at least from your perception, of what’s healthy and what’s not.”
Red Snapper — The Most Defrauded Fish Species of All
Swapping wild for farmed is not the only problem plaguing the seafood industry. Species substitution is also rampant, with red snapper being the most defrauded fish species of all.
It’s also one of the most expensive, in part because it tastes great, and secondly because real red snapper is always wild caught. There’s no such thing as commercially farmed red snapper. Alas, if you order red snapper in a restaurant, chances are you’ll get a completely different fish served to you.
Almost always, it’ll be an inexpensive farmed fish like tilapia, probably imported from Southeast Asia, and probably farmed under dubious conditions.
“This is not something that happens once in a while. This is something that happens with red snapper more than 9 out of 10 times. You could go out for a week and order red snapper every day and there’s a good chance you’re never going to get it,” Olmsted warns.
How to Avoid Being Defrauded When Buying Seafood
Olmsted’s book provides a number of excellent tips to assure you’re not being defrauded, including the following:
•Buy your fish from a trusted local fish monger.
•When buying fish from grocery stores or generic big box retailers, look for third party labels that verify quality.
◦The best known one is the Marine Stewardship Council (their logo features the letters MSC and a blue check mark in the shape of a fish). MSC has auditors who certify where the fish came from and how it got to you.
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