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Books

Food fraud

Meticulously researched page-turner exposes unregulated industry of deception

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/8/2016 (280 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

American journalist Larry Olmsted is a food and travel writer for Forbes and USA Today who might be best known for his widely read 2012 story at Forbes.com about fake Kobe beef.

The piece alerted consumers to the fact that, despite it being widely advertised at high-end restaurants all over the United States and Canada (and sold as such at inflated prices), the highly prized meat was, at the time, literally impossible to find here.

Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano / The Associated Press</p><p>Parmigiano Reggiano is a far cry from the powdery Parmesan cheese often found on North American grocery store shelves.</p>

Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano / The Associated Press

Parmigiano Reggiano is a far cry from the powdery Parmesan cheese often found on North American grocery store shelves.

Beautifully marbled, expensive Kobe beef comes from specific bulls or virgin cows raised to exacting standards in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture. The only slaughterhouse that processed the animals did not export to North America and, in any case, as of 2010, it was illegal to import any beef from Japan.

The story caused an uproar and exposed just one of the many ways consumers can be duped into eating ersatz versions of high-quality foods, as part of a combination of willful deception on the part of producers, ignorance on the part of consumers and a lax and often backward approach to labelling on the part of regulatory bodies.

In his upsetting and frustrating exposé, Real Food/Fake Food, Olmsted tackles a host of other offenders — from Parmesan cheese and prosciutto to honey and maple syrup — that will make you second-guess everything you put in your mouth.

To be clear, when Olmsted refers to "fake food," he isn’t talking about processed garbage masquerading as something healthy, such as granola bars or store-bought bran muffins. He’s referring to outright fraud — producers passing off vastly inferior versions of natural foods that, in many cases, have a documented and rigorous means of production that have existed for centuries.

Part of the problem stems from the quagmire of labelling processes and differing standards of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). For example, in the case of honey, the FDA defers to the Webster’s dictionary definition of honey ("a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs"), despite the American Beekeeping Federation’s insistence honey should contain pollen (pollen helps identify what flowers were used by the bees and where the honey came from).

The USDA, meanwhile, "created a voluntary grading system that lets producers slap Grade A, Grade B, or Grade C on their labels, with zero enforcement." Zero. Honey is never inspected at any stage of production; much of it is adulterated with high-fructose corn syrup.

Olive oil is a similar case. The terms "extra virgin," "organic" and "cold-pressed" can be placed on North American labels willy-nilly, but the contents of the bottle might bear no resemblance to real extra-virgin olive oil which, in Italy, must be made from early harvest olives — and nothing else — within a certain time frame and using a specific method.

Olmsted is not a particularly elegant writer, and while his passion for his subject is palpable, he rarely makes us feel as if we can taste the frequently falsified delicacies he’s describing.

However, from a journalistic standpoint, Real Food is a page-turner, a meticulously researched, readable work full of appalling facts that beg to be read aloud to the person next to you, if only so you can share your disbelief.

Case in point: If you buy fish labelled "red snapper," there’s a 94 per cent chance that’s not the fish you’re getting... and even worse, the fish it’s often replaced with, tilefish, is high in mercury, which can be dangerous for pregnant women.

The whole seafood chapter is hair-raising, detailing an epidemic level of deception worldwide; sushi restaurants are notable offenders.

Unfortunately, Real Food is written from an American perspective. And while the author frequently makes mention of other countries’ issues and regulations, it’s almost impossible to extrapolate his warnings and recommendations for Canadian readers/eaters.

That said, when he mentions popular brand names, it’s unlikely those companies’ practices of chicanery are any different in the Canadian market — if Bertolli is diluting its "extra-virgin" olive oil for the U.S. market, it’s almost certainly doing the same for Canada.

The deception and fraud revealed in Real Food/Fake Food will leave a bad taste in your mouth. However, true to the book’s title, Olmsted does offer helpful suggestions, including certifications to look for, brands to trust and places to order the real deal.

Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor who considers the olive oil tasting bar at Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich., pretty much heaven on earth.

Read more reviewed by Jill Wilson.

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