Vermont Author Larry Olmsted Dishes on Fake Food and How Consumers Can Protect Themselves

Fraudulent food is everywhere. From Parmesan cheese to olive oil to Kobe beef, there is no shortage of fake, unhealthy food being sold at restaurants and grocery stores in the United States.

American consumers recently learned of a scandal of how Parmesan cheese sold in this country is cut with cheaper cheeses and wood pulp. Equally disturbing is the fact that products in the U.S. like fish, beef, sushi, wine, and cheese are all regularly mislabeled, adulterated, or swapped for cheaper, less healthful products.

Vermont author Larry Olmsted, who recently published “Real Food Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It,” highlights food fakery and the deceptive practices behind our most beloved products.

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His book highlights how:

  • Federal regulations require the FDA to inspect a tiny amount of all imported seafood—less than 2 percent—yet they fail to do even this small amount every year.
  • The job of the FDA is to promote food producers and not protect consumers. It has long allowed legal but phony meat labels, such as grass-fed, natural, and Kobe.
  • The FDA tested olive oil for more than half a century and found widespread fraud every year. It then gave up testing entirely for budget reasons.
  • Restaurants can be dishonest about what they are serving, but are often on solid legal ground thanks to glaring loopholes in labeling laws as they apply to menus.
  • A label for grass-fed can be placed on any beef, no matter what it ate.

We talked to Olmsted about his book and how consumers can be informed and avoid being duped.

What was the most surprising piece of food fraud information you came across while researching your book?

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The biggest all around shock, to both myself and to readers I have talked to, is how restaurants are immune to the FDA and USDA labeling rules. Restaurant menus are the Wild West, and are often much more full of fake food than grocery stores.

In your book, you rave about a Florida seafood restaurant called Frenchy’s. The restaurant is known for its grouper, and the owner traces every single fish from the moment it’s caught until he serves it. Is this practice uncommon?

In the big scheme, it’s very uncommon—one here, one there. But the good news is that there are more and more restaurants and chefs—and wholesalers/distributors—taking this approach, and more technology being employed to better track seafood.

In Vermont, buying local at the farmers’ market, farm stand, or food coop is a way of life. Would you say that most local producers in Vermont are accurate about how they label their food?

I like to think that it’s pretty accurate here. I’ve read about farmers’ markets elsewhere in the country where someone buys a flat of strawberries at a big box warehouse sale and then sells them by the quart as local or adulterates local honey. But I have never seen that in Vermont.

What should consumers do when they see grass-fed beef for sale at the supermarket?

At the supermarket, you can’t really ask questions, but grass fed legally doesn’t mean anything. If you want it to be fed only grass, it has to say 100% grass fed, otherwise grass fed is meaningless. And if you want it to be drug free, then it should also say organic. In the eyes of the USDA, the two are not related, even though you or I might think grass fed refers to the traditional way of raising cattle—on ranges, eating grass with no drugs.

When someone is shopping at the grocery store for dairy, produce, beef, and chicken, they should think twice before purchasing a product with a label that says “natural” or “pure.” What are some other easy things consumers can look for to get their hands on real food?

While purists can find flaws, the USDA organic label is pretty solid for almost everything except seafood. Natural and pure, as well as humane fed and green fed, are totally meaningless. “Raised without antibiotics” is another good label to look for in all animal protein. On the other hand, producers love slapping “No hormones added” on poultry and pork products, but these are never allowed in the production of pork or chicken in the first place. All of it is hormone free, but not so for beef and lamb.

What can Vermont farmers and food producers do to better educate and assure consumers that their food is real? How can they set themselves apart?

Vermont already has a stellar reputation in the food world, and in this country. Made in Vermont is like what Made in Italy is to the rest of the world. The bigger problem is protecting that against imitators, like breakfast syrup masquerading as Vermont maple syrup.

As you know, buying local is a popular practice in Vermont, and many consumers believe the local food they are buying is considered “real” in every case. Do you think buying local is a reliable way to get real food?

Yes, in the sense of knowing the producer. But I think we sometimes over-emphasize local, maybe for the notion of keeping money in the community—as if other communities didn’t matter—or reducing fossil fuels. But as food writer and food lover, I ultimately want the best product I can get. To give a gratuitous example, I’d rather my champagne be from France than Burlington, and my salmon wild from Alaska than farmed in Maine. Local is not always better.

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