Is That Lobster Or Hermit Crab? What You’re Really Eating
Loose food labeling rules mean consumers often don’t get what they expect.
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 [email protected] Show on Sirius XM channel 111 about his book.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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