Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do about It, by Larry Olmsted
In REAL FOOD/FAKE FOOD, Mr. Olmsted documents, in detail, the rampant problems with fake and counterfeit foods sold in the U.S. He covers quite a few different food items, including beef, seafood, cheese, alcoholic drinks--even fruit juice. The frauds are especially concentrated in "special foods which for the first time in 2014 topped one hundred billion dollars in the United States. This category is rife with scams, including many foods viewed as healthier choices, as well as fancy cheeses, meats, oils, and other “gourmet” items."
Prior to reading this book, I admit that I had NO IDEA of how widespread the problem is. Okay, I get it now--it's a HUGE problem. It's also a little scary: "Unless you are leaving the supermarket via the “8 Items or Less” express lane, something in your cart is likely fake." In fact, the president himself got involved: "In mid-2014 President Obama announced that he was going to clean it up and appointed a seafood task force. When was the last time a national food crisis— and it is a crisis— got so out of control that the president had to step in?"
As another example, the widely-cited Consumer Reports confirmed the problem with seafood: "When Consumer Reports tested twenty-three supposedly wild-caught salmon fillets bought nationwide in 2005 – 6, only ten were in fact wild." So, the folks there showed that seafood was wrong over half of the time.
The author uses a variety of examples to illustrate the problem. For example, he spends a lot of time documenting how "Parmesan" Cheese sold in the U.S. is so much different than the actual, original product. And yet, the U.S. product is allowed to use the name, which is very misleading.
The author cites numerous statistics showing how the seafood industry, in particular, is filled with fake products. He notes that if you go to a restaurant and order sushi, it is near 100% certainty that your meal will NOT be what you think it is. He also cites numerous studies which confirm the deception--especially rampant in restaurants.
Even fruit juice has problems. Mr. Olmsted notes how labeling can mislead the consumer about what is really in the product. I thought the legal case involving 0.3% "Pomegranate juice" especially interesting. In that case, a major soda brand wanted to sell the juice as "Pomengranate Juice," in spite of the nearly non-existent pomengranate juice actually in the bottle.
Whilst reading REAL FOOD/FAKE FOOD, I kept on thinking, "How did this happening? Why doesn't the government stop this?" Well, it turns out that the author is equally mad; he has harsh words for the FDA, who were uncooperative in assisting him. He notes how he made numerous efforts to try to get the FDA to pay attention--but they refused to even grant him an interview, despite their promises. "No amount of follow-up could make those promises come true or make interviews actually happen. I offered to fly to Washington at my own expense and come to their offices to meet them." (They finally let the author submit some questions for consideration.)
Readers will likely get a little "steamed" when they realize how little protection the FDA is providing. "Federal regulations require (as in mandatory, not optional) the FDA to inspect less than 2 percent of imported seafood , hardly a rigorous analysis . Still, in 2013, inspectors managed to achieve barely a quarter of that incredibly low threshold—and their poor performance has been getting shoddier annually, down from the year before."
Take heart--the book is not all whining and hand wringing. Not at all. In the section, "What Can You Do?" Mr. Olmsted provides some practical solutions--ideas on where to buy the real thing, as well as ideas on how to cook. For example, he notes that the "big box" retailers do a good job at removing fake products--simply because they have so much clout. Similarly, certain grocery chains also are vigilant in not allowing fake products. Of course, the author admits, the real product will be more expensive. He personally has decided to have the REAL thing, but just have it less frequently.
All in all, I thought REAL FOOD/FAKE FOOD was an excellent book. I learned a TON about this problem. Honestly, I was totally ignorant of this issue before. At least I am now better informed. I'm also a little mad.