Some of your favorite foods — sushi, extra virgin olive oil, Kobe beef, Parmesan cheese — may not be what you think they are. How can you get a handle on what you eat and where it came from? USA Today columnist Larry Olmsted explains in his new book, Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It. Olmsted recently spoke with the Knowledge at Wharton Show on Sirius XM channel 111 about his book.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: It was recently discovered and reported that much of the Parmesan cheese sold here in the United States had some level of wood pulp in it. Your book takes an in-depth look at many of the problems out there right now. What are the best foods out there that give us the best nutrition and are tasty as well?
Olmsted: You mentioned the Parmesan cheese, the wood pulp thing. I’ll just start there as an example. I’ve been to Parma, Italy, where the real thing is made. That’s why it’s called Parmesan cheese. The cows [that produce the milk] are regulated where they graze. They’re not allowed to eat from any fields that have had pesticides or fertilizers used. The cows themselves can’t have steroids or antibiotics or hormones. So you’re getting ultra-pure milk. Then the cheese-making process, by law, has to start within two hours of milking.
So you’re getting ultra-pure milk that’s also really fresh. The only other ingredients allowed in Parmesan cheese are salt and rennet, which is the natural digestive enzyme that makes cheese form curds. It’s in all cheese. So you couldn’t really have less or better ingredients than you do. For that reason, during the space program, NASA, after much testing, chose this cheese as the cheese to send into space with the astronauts. It’s nutrient-dense. It’s very pure.
The problem is, and it’s not just Parmesan cheese — it’s Champagne and Kobe beef and a whole lot of other products — the United States has long refused to honor geographically based trademarks for food. In this country, you can make anything from any kind of milk with any kind of additives — any kind of cheese, really — and call it Parmesan.
“The good news is, it’s easy to buy the real thing once you know.”
While that wood pulp scandal, which was really about grated cheese, got a lot of media attention, to me, that’s not the big problem. Because people who care about food and cooking aren’t buying tubes of grated cheese anyway. It’s when you buy a wedge that’s $18 a pound wrapped up that looks like the Italian thing in the nice cheese case, and it’s not. Suddenly, you’re not getting all that promise of wholesomeness. The good news is, it’s easy to buy the real thing once you know.
Knowledge at Wharton: That’s part of the reason why we’ve seen the growth of the smaller market store in a lot of towns across the United States. We should say if you’re rating people’s concern of what they’re eating and the things they’re buying now, compared to maybe 15 or 20 years ago, it’s probably night and day how much better it is now. But there’s still a ways to go.
Olmsted: Absolutely. We went through three phases in this country. First, we were on the European model, where we ate more fresh food and stuff that was basically unprocessed. That was most of this country’s history. It’s funny, with cattle farming, what they call “conventional farming,” which is the industrial feedlot model, is really very new. Cattle have been farmed for thousands of years. What we call conventional farming is only a century old. So to me, it’s very unconventional…. Then we have that whole Wonder Bread era of what the wonders of science can do to your food. Now, it’s sort of coming back because we’ve realized that that science isn’t always so wonderful.
Knowledge at Wharton: There were stories about the problems of farming seafood over in Asia. But the problems with seafood here in and around the United States really culminate in what areas?
Olmsted: A lot of it does have to do with the imports. You mentioned Asia. With our other animal proteins, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, we are easily able to provide domestic supply. It might not be the best, but we know where it comes from and how it’s made, for the most part. New York Magazine two weeks ago said 95% of all the seafood we eat in this country is imported.
The supply chain is very opaque. The country of origin is obfuscated. A lot of the farm fish — about 40% of what we eat now comes from aquaculture — comes from southeast Asia, from countries that have really shoddy and shady track records, have repeatedly been found using banned or unapproved antibiotics in addition to environmentally destructive practices, and even slave labor. That’s a big problem.
There’s a lot of mislabeling. Studies have shown that about a third of the seafood sold in this country at retail and in restaurants is mislabeled in terms of species. You’re always getting something cheaper. It’s not an accident. It’s not like you go and buy cheap farm catfish and suddenly they give you wild-caught salmon. It’s always the other way around.
Knowledge at Wharton: Sushi is apparently one of the bigger problems right now, correct?
Olmsted: Absolutely. It’s just notorious for this substitution, for lower quality fish being used. Also, the more visibly hidden food is, the more chopped up, more processed, more fileted, the harder it is for you to tell. When you get a spicy tuna roll that’s chopped meat and mayonnaise wrapped in rice, you don’t really see it the way you see a whole fish.
Knowledge at Wharton: That’s amazing. It has to make you wonder if you have to change your habits in terms of what you’re eating right now.
Olmsted: I think you do. I love sushi. I’m a very early adopter. My father worked in Japan back in the 1940s, so when I was growing up in New York City, I ate sushi when it wasn’t popular. I’ve been to Japan. But I’ve had to mostly give it up. I’ll eat it still at high-end restaurants where I know they fly the fish in, but it has really become like fast food. There was never a notion you would pick your sushi up at the convenience store.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also mentioned lobster. In New England, you can get the best lobster pulled out of the water, an hour before. But the fact that there are places that sell lobster roll, or lobster mac and cheese, which is a big favorite these days — that may not be lobster at all, correct?
“You go to Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and they pull lobster out of the water. It’s North Atlantic lobster, instantly recognizable…. But when you take it out of the shell and start chopping it up, you don’t know so much.”
Olmsted: Absolutely. This is one of the more shocking problems, but it’s also a good example. Like you said, you go to Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and they pull lobster out of the water. It’s North Atlantic lobster, instantly recognizable. There’s nothing else that looks like it. You really can’t be fooled. It’s also a wild-caught thing, it’s not farm-raised. You know there are no drugs. It’s just a lobster. It’s real food. But when you take it out of the shell and start chopping it up, you don’t know so much.
Inside Edition did an exposé earlier this year, just a few months ago, where they went to restaurants around the country and bought lobster bisque, lobster stew, lobster ravioli, lobster salad, and then DNA tested it. About a third of the dishes had no lobster at all. So you go from this whole Maine lobster, very real, to lobster ravioli with no lobster in it, which is very fake.
In the middle, there’s sort of this gray area where the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration], for reasons that defy rational understanding, has this commercial seafood list, which says what you can call different kinds of fish, legally. They chose to put langostino, which is a kind of crab — it’s most closely related to hermit crabs — on the list as acceptable for lobster. So in these fast foods, like a lobster quesadilla or taco, you’re allowed to use langostino and legally call it lobster. You can have lobster, you can have fake legal lobster, or you can have no lobster at all. And they’re all out there.
Knowledge at Wharton: Hermit crab quesadilla?
Olmsted: It doesn’t sound as sexy, does it?
Knowledge at Wharton: No, it really doesn’t. I’ve been up to Maine many times where you’re literally eating lobster that was pulled out of the water an hour or two hours prior to that. If you go to McDonald’s to get a lobster roll, you’re on your own on that case?
Olmsted: Interestingly, I’ve noticed just since my book came out, just in the last few weeks as I travel around, some places are getting a little more precise in their language. I saw a billboard yesterday for McDonald’s, and it said, “Our lobster rolls use 100% North Atlantic lobster,” which is much more specific than just saying lobster roll. One of the sandwich shops had a sign up that said, “It’s back. Our seasonal lobster and seafood salad.” That immediately says to me, “lobster and seafood” means it could be 1% lobster.
“There are fewer than 10 restaurants in the United States that serve real Kobe beef and hundreds that lie about it.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You also go into the issues with Kobe beef.
Olmsted: Like I mentioned with Parmesan cheese and Champagne, a lot of these geographically based foods can’t get trademark protection here. It’s legal to call whatever you want Kobe beef in the United States, but it’s still misleading if you’re trying to dupe the consumer into thinking that it’s this Japanese beef, which obviously people are going to think of when you say “Kobe beef.” A couple of higher-end chains have been successfully class-action-suited over this issue.
But suffice to say that for most of the 21st century, there was no Kobe beef in this country at all. It was illegal to import. Now you can, but there’s so little. There are fewer than 10 restaurants in the United States that serve real Kobe beef and hundreds that lie about it.
Knowledge at Wharton: I wanted to get into the regulatory end of this, because you mentioned the FDA a little while ago.
Olmsted: It’s a sticky issue because most people aren’t exactly excited about cries for more government regulation or for paying more in taxes. So it is tough. It is going to take some manpower and some money to solve. But the FDA has several different problems, from my perspective. One is lack of both willingness and capacity to do inspections and stay on top of it. But a bigger issue, which is not really tied to their budget, is their position on labeling.
For many years in this country, there was no standard for organic. That was a big problem. People abused it. It was confusing; nobody knew what it meant. Sometimes it meant nothing. In 2002, we created a pretty detailed standard for organic. That problem went away. But we still have the same thing with a lot of other words, and the big one now is “natural.” The FDA has chosen intentionally — it’s not like an oversight — not to define natural. It’s slapped on one of every four new food products being introduced in this country, but it’s utterly meaningless. There are a lot of terms like that.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about olive oil being an area where liberal language is used in terms of the quality of what we have here in the United States.
Olmsted: This one really bothers me because I love olive oil. It’s really a wonder food. When it’s good, it’s one of the healthiest things. Every time they do a study, it seems they find another way it’s good for you. And it tastes delicious. The problem is, “extra virgin” olive oil is supposed to represent the best grade, like when you go up to the gas pump, and there’s regular, premium, and super premium. Extra virgin is supposed to be the A+ of olive oil.
Different people I’ve talked to in the industry estimate 8% to 10% of what’s produced in Europe, for example, would qualify as extra virgin. But in this country, it’s virtually impossible to buy a bottle that’s not extra virgin. I talked to the FDA about this, and they said, “We don’t have a standard of identity for olive oil,” which means a definition. “So we can’t enforce anything because we can’t hold them to any definition.” Why don’t you have a standard definition? “Because we haven’t created one.” So it’s this circular argument that’s kind of nonsensical.
Knowledge at Wharton: What needs to be done? What can be done, from a regulatory perspective, to try and get a little bit of change started in this process? Or are we stuck in a rut, where it almost feels like we’re too far down the road to make significant change?
Olmsted: It does feel like that, but I don’t think that’s true. I think starting by having some sensible label definitions. When they wanted to define “natural,” it was a big issue. Big food weighs in, lobbyists weigh in, consumers weigh in. But ultimately, you just have to create some sort of a definition. It’s better than having none, and it being the Wild West.
On the seafood front, President [Barack] Obama announced a presidential task force to fight seafood fraud in 2014, which shows how big a problem that is. But they are actually fairly quickly making inroads. The FDA built a new DNA testing lab. They are introducing all these new protocols. In a case where it got a lot of publicity, and then the president intervened, the FDA is actually taking meaningful action. There’s no reason why they couldn’t do that in other areas.