By Lani Furbank
Anyone who’s ever walked into a grocery store knows how overwhelming it can be to try to sort through the thousands of claims plastered on labels: all natural, fat-free, grass-fed, pasture-raised, free-range, cage-free, no hormones added, gluten-free, non-GMO, organic, sugar-free, multigrain, the list seems to go on forever.
Try as we might to purchase responsibly-produced, healthful products based on what we read on labels, award-winning journalist Larry Olmsted explains it might all be for naught. Olmsted’s new book, Real Food, Fake Food, reveals the shocking prevalence of counterfeit foods in the United States. From lies on labels to diluted products, Olmsted helps consumers navigate the edible world to avoid the fake food and find the real food. He has been writing about fake food scandals for four years, but he has been covering food and travel for more than two decades. He is currently a columnist for Forbes.com and USAToday.com, and his extensive research for Real Food, Fake Food took him to Japan, Chile, Argentina, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and all across the United States and Canada.
Olmsted shared his insights on some of the biggest issues in the real food, fake food debate.
New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): What are the top five most misleading food labels out there today?
Larry Olmsted (LO): There are so many it’s hard to say which are “most” misleading, but these are some of my least favorite:
“Hormone-free” on poultry or pork. Unlike antibiotics, which are widely abused in agriculture, it is illegal to use hormones on poultry or pork in the U.S. (but not beef). So all poultry and pork is hormone-free. But producers have found consumers will pay a few cents more if they slip this on.
“Organic seafood.” There are legal organic standards for produce and meats, but not for seafood. Totally meaningless, yet widely used.
“Natural,” especially on meats. Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have rendered this word virtually meaningless for all foods, but when it comes to beef, chicken, pork, and lamb, literally every single animal raised in this country, regardless of drugs or diet, qualifies as “natural” under USDA regulations.
“Angus” or “Black Angus.” This one is more of an issue at restaurants than retail, but the industry discovered people will pay more for a burger or steak with this lofty sounding word in front of it. Very popular scam in fast casual chains. Scotland’s Aberdeen Angus is indeed a superior tasting beef breed, but that’s not what you get in this country. USDA regulations allow producers to label any cattle more than 50% black in color as Angus – even dairy cows. (On the other hand, “Certified Angus Beef” does have a legal meaning and is a superior tasting meat.)
“Grass-fed” on beef. This one is scary because it affects people who are really making an effort to eat healthier, and because it just changed without many people noticing. For the past decade the USDA had a somewhat acceptable definition, but they just rescinded it, and it’s now OK to slap grass-fed on any beef, no matter what it ate.
FPC: Is this kind of deception in labeling legal?
LO: All of the above examples are. There is plenty of illegal labeling, usually around adulteration, but that’s very hard for consumers to tell. So you buy a jar of honey and it’s cut with high fructose corn syrup – that’s illegal, but you can’t really tell. Then there is a gray area of “misleading.” While there is no definition of Kobe beef in this country, and restaurants can use the famous name of the world’s most rarefied meat almost any way they choose, several that have duped customers by serving it claiming it’s the real thing from Japan have successfully been sued in class action suits.
FPC: What are the dangers of misleading labeling?
LO: People waste money. People get inferior taste. If you are trying to avoid antibiotics, steroids and hormones, and you think you can do that by buying “natural, grass-fed, free-ranging, free-roaming, humane, pasture-finished, no additives, or no animal by-products,” you are wrong. None of those mean anything at all. The antibiotic resistant superbug crisis is not a sci-fi future apocalypse, it’s very real and here today, killing tens of thousands of people annually in this country. President Obama launched a $1.2 billion taskforce to combat it. To me there is no doubt it is directly tied to the massive use of antibiotics in our food supply – more than 80 percent of all antibiotics in this country, including 95 percent of those classified as medically necessary are not used on humans or to treat anything at all, they are animal feed.
FPC: How has our food system lost so much transparency over the years?
LO: Every time a new labelling issue or decision comes up, lobbyists and affected manufacturers are much more likely to be following it closely and fight for their advantage than the general public. And the FDA has repeatedly chosen, very much on purpose, not to define terms like “natural” or issue what they call standards of identity for basic foods like honey or olive oil. With no definition of the real, they can’t say something is fake.
FPC: What were some of the biggest policy losses in regulation transparency?
LO: The most public example is definitely the FDA’s decision, after public comment, not to define natural. But in general, the big problem is that the standard is that if something is not defined, producers can use it however they want. It should the opposite – you should need permission to make specific quality claims on labels. To say that it is okay to label meat that has eaten animal by-products, which is completely unnatural, forced cannibalism, as “no animal by-products” because “no animal by-products” isn’t defined is totally ridiculous.
FPC: What progress on regulations or policies is being made to give more power to consumers?
LO: Not much, but the outcry over natural did get the FDA to extend the public hearing phase on their latest consideration of the term. If they follow past performance, they might decide something in a few years. Right now, the advances are at the state level, like California and Connecticut enacting stricter olive oil standards than the federal government.
FPC: What should consumers do when shopping to make sure they’re eating real food, and not fake food?
LO: Cook more and buy ingredients closer to their natural form. You won’t get fooled buying a whole Maine lobster alive and kicking, but buy frozen lobster ravioli and it might well have no lobster. Buy pomegranates and blueberries and that’s what you’ll get. Buy Pomegranate-blueberry juice and you might get something that is mostly white grape and apple juice, even though they are not on the label, with as little as 0.3 percent pomegranate. Also, the European Union has much better consumer protection for food: buy real cheeses from Europe, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, and they won’t have any added cellulose, unlike our so-called “Parmesan,” which might be over a fifth non-cheese… At the end of every chapter in my book, I give very specific buying tips, a lot of them having to do with labels. For example, if you want real grass-fed beef that is also drug- and animal by-product-free (most people seeking grass-fed beef want this too), you need to look for Niman Ranch, Certified Angus Beef Natural (as opposed to regular CAB), [or] the seal of the American Grassfed Association.
FPC: What inspired you to write Real Food, Fake Food?
LO: My travel and food writing experiences eating the world’s great real foods, then seeing the pale imitations most people in this country think is the real thing. Remember, most counterfeiters knock off high-value products like Rolex watches and Gucci handbags. The reason we have so much fake food is because there is so much excellent real food, and I love real food.
Photo credit: Allison Olmsted