February 4, 2013
Is your lemon juice really citrusy sugar water?
Is that hunk of white tuna sushi actually escolar, a cheaper fish associated with its own kind of food poisoning?
And is your age-defying pomegranate juice just plain-old grape juice with a splash of the good stuff?
After winning a seat in the pantheon of so-called “super foods,” pomegranates got a burst of popularity, with consumers craving everything from fresh seeds to juices and teas. But its newfound fame also found it the victim of an age-old problem: food fraud. According to the non-profit organization U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) in Maryland, pomegranate juice was the most common case of food fraud in the past year, often watered down with grape or pear juice to cut costs.
The group operates the Food Fraud Database, which went live in April 2012 and recently added 800 new records. Other usual suspects from the scholarly articles, news accounts and other publicly available records include milk, honey, spices, tea and seafood.
Though senior director of food standards Markus Lipp says we enjoy a high level of food safety in the United States, he also warns, “The real risk of adulteration is that nobody knows what’s in the product.”
Adulteration, according to the Food and Drug Administration, includes foods in which, “any substance has been mixed and packed with it so as to reduce or lower or injuriously affect its quality or strength,” including, added poisons or deleterious ingredients. Sometimes contaminants pose severe health risks, as was the case with the tainted milk from China in 2008. But often it’s a matter of using a cheaper, but still legal product to cut another.
To avoid fraud, Lipp subscribes to the idea that if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is, particularly for liquids. And for ground foods, like spices, coffee and tea, Lipp suggests buying whole food products to have a better sense of what’s really in there.
1. Olive Oil: Olive oil might have the distinction of being the oldest adulterated good. “Olive-oil fraud has been around for millenia,” according to the New Yorker. Cut with sunflower and hazelnut oils, olive oil was considered “the most adulterated agricultural in the European Union” by the late 1990s. Even after a special task force was formed, the problem remains. In his 2012 book, “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” Tom Mueller writes about the ongoing fraud. Mueller tells the New Yorker, “In America, olive-oil adulteration, sometimes with cut-rate soybean and seed oils, is widespread, but olive oil is not tested for by the F.D.A.—F.D.A. officials tell me their resources are far too limited, and the list of responsibilities far too long, to police the olive-oil trade.”
2. Honey: In 2011, honey was at the center of the largest food fraud case in United States history, along with “a network of co-operatives in Asia, a German conglomerate, jet-setting executives, doctored laboratory reports, high-profile takedowns and fearful turncoats.” The $80-million case involved a flood of cheap honey imported into the United States after being contaminated first with antibiotics and then with “corn-based syrups to fake the good taste,” according to the Globe and Mail. A quick search on the USP database reveals the problems persists, with added sweeteners like corn, cane and beet syrups.
Spices and Ground Goods
3. Saffron: Corn silk, dyed onion, beet fiber and sandlewood dye; these are a few of our least favorite things, that get passed off us as saffron, according to USP. Lipp says it’s particularly easy to disguise other products as higher quality spices because the fine grain hides discrepancies. “If I buy ground black pepper, I obtain a fine powder of a gray speckled mess,” he says. But if he buys whole black peppercorns, Lipp says he can, “just by visual inspection, make sure there’s not a large amount of twigs or any other low-grade materials in it or anything else but black pepper.”
4. Tea: Suffering from a similar “speckled mess” problem as saffron, ground tea can disguise adulterants like, turmeric, copper salts and even sand and colored sawdust, according to database results. Loose leaf teas may offer a more reliable route, plus you can take up a cool new hobby and learn to read tea leaves.
5. Wasabi: You watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi and now you’re eating your way through all the Japanese eateries within a 50 mile radius, but–and no disrespect to the fine establishments you frequent–are you actually eating real wasabi? That kick in the sinuses may actually be courtesy of horse radish, mustard and food coloring, not paste made from grated wasabi root. Fortunately, horseradish still manages to get the job done but if you want the real thing, you may have to do some digging.
6. Sriracha: This “hipster ketchup” that is “so popular, that people are counterfeiting it,” recently got the rundown on the radio show, The Dinner Party. The mix of jalapenos, garlic, sugar, salt and vinegar comes in an iconic rooster-stamped, green-capped bottle from California’s Huy Fong Foods. And though there is a town in Thailand called Sriracha, Randy Clemens, author of “The Sriracha Cookbook,” told the Dinner Party, the hot sauce there is very different from the mix hipsters love so dearly, though it involves the same core ingredients. In an attempt to capitalize on Huy Fong’s success, bottlers have begun mimicking the brand, even replacing the rooster with a unicorn in one instance. Less a matter of faked ingredients, it’s still pretty misleading and falls under the FDA’s regulations on “misbranding.” To make sure you’re getting the real Huy Fong deal, Clemens says, “You want to look for the green cap.”
Curious about what might be in your favorite food? Check it out on the Food Fraud Database.
January 30, 2013
Guacamole and the Super Bowl. The two go hand in hand these days don’t they?
And yet, if you visit the California Avocado Commission’s website — brought to you by the state with 60,000 acres of avocado orchards — you won’t find any mention of “Guacamole Sunday.” Instead, a message on the site’s front page reads: “Our season has ended. Look for California avocados in stores from Spring – Fall.”
When I asked Will Brokaw, the California farmer behind Will’s Avocados about this seemingly odd timing, he was quick to point to the irony.
“The California avocado season is just barely getting going at that time of year,” he said. And while it’s great that demand is so high, which in turn raises sales numbers and wholesale prices for everyone, it’s a shame to see that demand at precisely the moment when Hass avocados – the most popular domestic variety – have yet to fully ripen. (The ones that do get picked in February are often watery, he says.)
“Everybody would be better off if the Super Bowl was delayed until early March,“ Brokaw added.
Well, maybe not everybody. In fact, as soon as I started looking into how avocados became the signature food for an event that takes place in the dead of winter, it quickly became clear that the Super Bowl-guacamole tie is a fascinating – perhaps disturbing – example of the way globalization has come to define the food on our plates.
Last year, according to the produce industry publication The Packer, about 75 percent of the avocados shipped within the U.S. in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl came from Mexico. Most of the rest came from Chile. And that translates to a lot of the creamy green fruits. This year Americans will eat almost 79 million pounds of them in the few weeks before the big game – an eight million pound increase over last year and a 100 percent increase since 2003.
None of this has been an accident. The avocado industry started promoting guacamole as a Super Bowl food back in the 1990s, shortly after the NAFTA agreement began allowing floods of avocados from Central and South America to enter the country in winter. By 2008, Mexico had become the largest supplier of avocados to the U.S.
The Christian Science Monitor wrote about the phenomenon in this 2009 article, Super Bowl success story: Mexico’s avocados.
In the central state of Michoacán, Mexico’s avocado belt, exports generated $400 million last year, and it’s now the second source of income for the state – after remittances sent from Mexicans living in the US.
“It has transformed this state, and put a hold on immigration,” says José Luis Gallardo, the head of the Michoacán Avocado Commission and a plantation owner who has watched the industry explode in the past few years.
While fresh avocados have been a staple of the Mexican diet for centuries, in the US they were mostly consumed in California or Texas, where they are grown.
Today, the fruit is as common in California supermarkets as it is in Kansas.
This is where I start to feel conflicted. On the one hand, I feel truly happy for the Kansans who now have access to one of the world’s most delicious, perfect foods. And I like knowing that so many people are serving guacamole at their Super Bowl parties instead of say, highly-processed cheese dip.
But the fact that the foreign avocado industry was able to create a new market for their product virtually overnight simply by pulling out all the stops on marketing the product as an established Super Bowl food also seems noteworthy.
Our increasing dependence on large monocrops and factory farms (think: vast swaths of almonds grown in California to feed Germany’s hankering for marzipan, or the pork produced in Iowa’s concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) intended for South Korea, Colombia, and Panama) comes with a steep price.
Until just a few decades ago, most Americans had a basic awareness of the way food and farming was connected to place, seasons, and the weather. Not only have we lost these things, but we’ve also lost touch with how and where our food is produced — a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to knowing that your dinner ingredients won’t be, say, recalled for salmonella contamination, filled with antibiotics, or covered in pesticide residue.
I can call up Will Brokaw — or grab him at the farmers market — and ask him how he grows his avocados (everything from how he controls pests, treats the soil, and uses water, to how he treats his workers). And while the growers in Michoacán, Mexico, may very well be using the exact same farming practices, I have no way of knowing either way. That disconnect may not keep most of us from buying winter avocados, but it should give us pause — just like the other windows into the vast complexities of our food system should.
And that “perfect Super Bowl snack”? It may not be quite so perfect anymore.
December 10, 2012
When Starbucks announced in late November that it was unveiling a new $7-per-grande-cup brew in select stores, reaction was mixed. Seattle Weekly’s food writer, Hanna Raskin wrote about an office taste test, “The consensus was that the coffee’s good, but not appreciably better than Starbucks’ standard drip.” And yet, the Costa Rica Finca Palmilera Geisha has been doing okay. The Los Angeles Times reported that the online stock sold out in 24 hours, at $40 a bag.
While the news might elicit a Liz-Lemon worthy eye-roll or shooting pangs of jealousy depending on the person, it might actually be something we just have to get used to. Published just a few weeks before Starbucks unrolled its cup of liquid gold, a study from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K. and the Environment Coffee Forest Forum in Ethiopia warned that up to 70 percent of the world’s coffee supply could be gone by 2080 due to climate change.
Turns out, the warnings are actually pretty consistent across the board, the World Bank is practically hoarse with all its calls for caution. On November 18, the World Bank released a new study about the effects of climate change over a long period of time, concluding, “The world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.”
New York University associate professor of food studies and economist Carolyn Dimitri says attention to the vulnerability of the world’s food systems is a step in the right direction but not enough. “These are really big and important groups that are talking about this, but how are they going to gain traction given the way our food system has become so industrialized?”
As someone who’s been studying organic food marketing and access since her days at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dimitri says she wasn’t too surprised to hear about the $7 coffee. “Living in Manhattan,” she says, “people would probably pay even more than that for a cup of coffee.” She sees the launch as a way to appeal to a new set of customers who might have seen Starbucks as selling adequate but not speciality coffee, whether it be for taste or for its unique ethical sourcing, which Starbucks is seeking to expand.
Though Starbucks aims to have all of its coffee meet standards for farmer wages and working conditions by 2015, Dimitri says, “My students tend to be a little bit suspicious of the big companies that enter this area,” as when Walmart began carrying organic products. But Dimitri has a hard time criticizing large companies motives if the end result is an improved livelihood for farmers. Ethical sourcing practices, as defined by Conservation International, include provisions for environmental sustainability as well as economic.
But the commitment is hard to measure. Taking Starbucks as an example, Dimitri says, “You can do a good thing but really a better thing would be for no one to buy coffee in a coffee shop in a disposable cup. Does ethically sourcing some of your coffee, is that sufficient to outweigh all of the garbage that’s created?”
The impact of climate change is hard to estimate but the study out of Ethiopia took predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to ask what would happen to Arabica bean crops if the temperature increased within a range of 1.8° C to 4° C.
The potential losses would not only mean more expensive coffee for consumers, but fewer jobs and less economic stability for producers. According to the report, “total coffee sector employment [is] estimated at about 26 million people in 52 producing countries.” The study also reports that coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil.
In another alarm-sounding report from the World Bank, the development agency writes that though global food prices have fallen from a peak in July, “prices remain at high levels – 7 percent higher than a year ago.” Some specific crop prices are much higher still, including maize, which is 17 percent more expensive than it was in October, 2011.
In the case of coffee, Colombia recently announced a plan to offer insurance to growers to protect them from losses incurred from severe weather, according to South Africa’s Times Live.
“More people should be thinking about it and talking about it,” says Dimitri. “I don’t think that our policymakers take it as seriously as the researchers do.”
For the consumers who are concerned and have the means and access to purchase sustainably, ethically produced foods, Dimitri says, “they’re willing to make sacrifices in other areas.”
Through a sheer appeal to quality, Starbucks is hoping consumers will find that reason enough to spend on the newest varietal in its Reserve line. Plus, it’s actually not the most expensive cup of coffee ever sold, if you count add-ons. One customer with a veritable blank-check coupon went wild crafting the priciest drink he could, according to Piper Weiss, and topped out at $23.60. His drink–if you can really still call it that–consisted of, “one Java Chip Frappucino ($4.75), plus 16 shots of espresso ($12), a shot of soy milk (.60), a drop of caramel flavoring (.50), a scoop of banana puree ($1), another scoop of strawberry puree (.60), a few vanilla beans(.50), a dash of Matcha powder (.75), some protein powder (.50) and a caramel and mocha drizzle to cap it off (.60).”
Still, for a straight up cup of Joe, it takes the cake. ”It is the highest price we’ve ever had,” a spokesperson told CNBC, adding, “It raises the bar.”
November 30, 2012
It’s not peanut butter jelly time. In fact, put down the peanut butter and walk away slowly. If the spread you are putting on your morning toast is from a jar of Organic Trader Joe’s Creamy Salted Valencia peanut butter, you may just want to stick with jelly. The reason? The Food and Drug Administration issued a summons to shut down the country’s largest organic peanut butter processor earlier this week, per the Associated Press.
Salmonella in peanut butter is no new discovery—in 2007, contaminated Peter Pan products resulted in 329 reported cases in 41 states—and this past September, Trader Joe’s voluntarily recalled its Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter due to contamination with salmonella thought to be from Sunland, Inc., located in Portales, New Mexico. The outbreak of salmonella poisoning—41 people infected in 20 states—has since been traced to the New Mexico plant, which distributes to major food retailers including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Target. FDA inspections found samples of salmonella in 28 places in the plant—unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside of the factory, too. Not to worry, though, Sunland Inc. hasn’t manufactured peanut butter since the initial voluntary recall in September.
But how does salmonella get into peanut butter in the first place? Dr. Mike Doyle, who has assisted in helping Sunland getting their plants back up and running again and serves as director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, explains that peanuts grow in the ground and can be contaminated from a variety of sources: manure, water, wild animals—even the soil. Studies have shown that once present, salmonella can survive for many months—even years—in peanut butter, according to Scientific American. Before treatment, in fact, about two percent of all peanuts are contaminated with salmonella.
“When harvested, we assume there can be some salmonella present and we have to use a treatment to kill it,” Doyle says. A roaster with air temperatures set to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit destroys salmonella in peanuts. For this reason, this moment in the process is often referred to as the “kill step” by manufacturers. The biggest challenge, then, is to prevent contamination in processing plant after the roasting.
“Water is one of the biggest problems in dry food processing for salmonella proliferation,” Doyle says. “If water is available to salmonella, it will grow.”
Dry food manufacturers like a peanut plants or breakfast cereal producers, for example, must minimize the use of water in the plant. Everything from leaks in the roof to the water used to clean up a mess needs to be controlled.
So what can be done to prevent future contamination? There are a variety of things that can be done to upgrade systems and facilities, Doyle says. But all food processors are different in how they control harmful microbes in their plants. As for the Sunland plant, Doyle says they’ve traced the root cause of the contamination to the roaster room.
“The company is in the process of making changes to prevent future contamination,” he says. “They’re gutting the room—new walls, new floors—and fixing other things that need to be addressed.”
September 5, 2012
The apple, that innocent bud of an Americana autumn, has pulled off one of the greatest cons of all time. As students across the country prepare to greet a new school year and teacher with a polished bit of produce, the apple cements its place in the patriotic foods pantheon despite its dodgy past.
A clever bit of biology, well documented in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, and a tireless cheer campaign of fall orchard visits and doctor-endorsed slogans saved the apple from its bitter beginnings in early America. Though its standing in society today is rivaled only by bald eagles and baseball, the apple’s journey to ubiquity was tumultuous.
Stretching back to the hills of Kazakhstan, early apples were a far cry from today’s sweet, fleshy varieties. As Pollan explains, sweetness is a rarity in nature. Apples benefitted from being bitter and sometimes poisonous because it allowed the seeds to spread unmolested. Because each seed has the genetic content of a radically different tree, the fruit came in countless forms, “from large purplish softballs to knobby green clusters.”
When the apple came to the American colonies, it was still a long way from a sweet treat. Bitter but easy to grow, the produce made excellent hard cider. In a time when water was considered more dangerous than consuming alcohol, hard cider was a daily indulgence. Its distilled cousin, applejack, also became popular, according to documentation from Colonial Williamsburg.
As anyone who grew up in the Ohio River Valley knows, the greatest champion of the fruit was a wandering missionary named John Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and beyond bloomed in the wake of his visits. He was opposed to grafting, the practice of inserting “a section of a stem with leaf buds is inserted into the stock of a tree” to reproduce the same type of apples from the first tree, as described by the University of Minnesota.
Without the human intervention, however, apples remained overwhelmingly bitter and when an anti-alcohol fervor swept the nation in the late 19th century, the plant’s fate was in peril. One of the fiercest of opponents, temperance supporter and axe-wielding activist Carrie Nation, went after both growers and bars, leaving a wake of destruction in her path. Nation was arrested 30 times in a ten-year span for vandalism in the name of her movement, according to PBS.
“But with the help of early public relations pioneers crafting slogans such as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the plant quickly reinvented itself as a healthy foodstuff,” according to the PBS production of Pollan’s work.
Elizabeth Mary Wright’s 1913 book, Rustic Speech and Folk-lore, recorded the use of apples as part of common kitchen cures. “For example,” she writes, “Ait a happle avore gwain to bed, An’ you’ll make the doctor beg his bread…or as the more popular version runs: An apple a day Keeps the doctor away.”
Free to produce a socially acceptable fruit, growers raced to develop sweet, edible varieties that would replace the plant’s previous life. Shaking its association with hard cider and reckless imbibing, the apple found a place in one of the most faultless places of American society: the schoolhouse.
Held up as the paragon of moral fastidiousness, teachers, particularly on the frontier, frequently received sustenance from their pupils. “Families whose children attended schools were often responsible for housing and feeding frontier teachers,” according to a PBS special, titled “Frontier House, Frontier Life.” An apple could show appreciation for a teacher sometimes in charge of more than 50 students.
Apples continued to be a favorite way to curry favor even after the practical purpose of feeding teachers disappeared. Bing Crosby’s 1939 “An Apple for the Teacher,” explains the persuasive allure of the fruit. “An apple for the teacher will always do the trick,” sings Crosby, “when you don’t know your lesson in arithmetic.”
By the time American scholar Jan Harold Brunvand published his book, The Study of American Folklore, in 1968, the phrase “apple-polisher” was more or less shorthand for brown-nosing suck-up. With cutting-edge technology in classrooms seen as an academic advantage, many teachers may be asking for a completely different kind of apple: not a Red Delicious or Granny Smith but an iPad.