For the Eco-Conscious Buyer: Beware of Fake Food Claims

BY: PROFESSOR TANJA SREBOTNJAK, DIRECTOR OF THE HIXON CENTER

As I was returning from an overseas trip, I stumbled across an interesting article in the in-flight magazine. It was interesting not only because of its educational content, but because it was in an airline magazine – the kind that typically focuses on enticing customers with exotic vacation getaways and culinary delights.

The article, titled “Counterfeit Cuisine,” advised readers to stay away from several foods, including truffle fries, Kobe beef, Red Snapper, lobster, super-market olive oil and organic seafood. Essentially all of these items were found to either be generally counterfeited or to have meaningless labels.

For example, a whopping 99 percent of pricey and exclusive Kobe beef sold in the United States is fake, even if you pay $300 for it! There are only 3 restaurants in the whole U.S. (and none in Europe) that are certified to import real Kobe beef. Similarly, although not quite as costly, restaurant menus and stores claiming to sell you Red Snapper are false more than 87 percent of the time. Instead, you are sold cheaper substitutes.[1] And when buying lobster, go for the whole thing or don’t buy it at all! It is easy and legal for restaurants to sell lobster substitutes instead, thanks to a strange Food & Drug Administration definition.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil sold in U.S. supermarkets is counterfeited 80-90 percent of the time. Instead, most olive oil contains only about 10 percent virgin olive, and the rest is oil from cheaper seeds such as corn, soy or peanuts!

Most of us already know that U.S. food labeling laws are riddled with loopholes as well. Be mindful that restaurants are exempt from laws governing food retailers and producers, and can pepper their menus with all kinds of creative labels such as ‘natural’, ‘wild-caught’, ‘dry-aged’, etc. There are also no rules for labeling seafood as ‘organic.’

While all of this made for a sobering read, my absolute favorite was the truffle fries. I, for one, find the thought of dousing a fast food like French fries with a luxury condiment such as oil made from truffles amusing to begin with, but it turns out that truffle oil does not even exist naturally. It is lab-derived from 2,4-dithiapentane, which itself is made from formaldehyde. So, if you like truffles with your fries, you had better ask for actual truffles!

For once, I was thankful to the airline for some honest and customer-empowering reporting!

[1] By the way, considering widespread overfishing, consider the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Watch recommendations for buying sustainably managed and harvested seafood (http://www.seafoodwatch.org, also available as an easy to use app).