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Sunday November 19, 2017
Are you a food faker?

 

Forget "fake news." The more concerning trend for todays' community grocer should be the apparent rise of fake food. For instance:

  • Just this week, USDA announced Massachussetts' Willow Tree Poultry Farm was recalling nearly a quarter ton of buffalo-style chicken salad for misbranding and undeclared allergens. Apparently, the undeclared allergen, discovered when Whole Foods employees began unpacking the product, was tuna, as the chicken salad contained no chicken.
  • A February 2017 study conducted by Trent University for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported Subway sandwich chicken meat contains only from 54 percent to 43 percent chicken DNA. In response, Subway hired its own labs to independently test its sandwich chicken from Canada, finding less than 1 percent of the sample was non-chicken additive. It called the original report false and misleading, but not before the news was spread far and wide on the Internet.
  • A group of 32 Congressional representatives are demanding the Food and Drug Administration stop companies from using the term "milk" to describe plant-based beverages like almond milk. They argue FDA regulations define true milk as that which comes from cows. Meanwhile a pair of Congressional reps are sponsoring a bill that would require FDA to reserve the term "milk" for milk, yogurt and cheese products that come only from hooved mammals.
  • CBS' 60 Minutes reported in January 2016 that Italy's olive oil business has become so corrupted by organized crime that much of the olive oil the United States now imports isn't what the label says.  Journalist Tom Mueller estimates as much as 80 percent of the extra-virgin olive oil sold in the United States doesn't meet the legal standard to be graded as such.
  • In fall 2016, the ocean conservation group Oceana released a new report claiming that one in five of more than 25,000 seafood samples tested worldwide was mislabeled. An interactive map of the Oceana's global seafood fraud review makes the extent clear.
  • Britain's 2013 Horsegate scandal disgusted the public when DNA testing found traces of horse meat in supermarket burgers, frozen lasagna, bolognese sauce and canned chile. The United Kingdom responded by establishing the first-of-a-kind national food-crime unit, dedicated to fighting fake food.

Food fraud has become a $50 billion annual industry according to one estimate. But as troublesome as those headlines about blatant fake foods may be, grocers are potentially putting themselves at the center of the biggest fake-food backlash to come. More and more critics are beginning to question whether the food-safety claims underlying the 3,400-percent increase in sales of organic foods over the last quarter century amount to deceptive business practices.

16-page research review commissioned by a non-profit association of academic professors, researchers, teachers and authors last year studied more than 150 existing scientific sources to evaluate the organic industry's health claims—both those actively expressed and those only assumed by consumers but permitted to stand by marketers. Its conclusions were not kind to organic marketers.

"Our review," the authors write, "suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices.... This review of published research, documented organic and natural produce industry practices, and advocacy collaborations shows widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities, both transparent and covert, disparaging competing conventional foods and agriculture practices." Those concerted efforts between product marketers and "independent" nongovernmental organizations advocating for organics, the Review article said, "...have contributed to false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions influencing food purchase decisions [which have]...generated hundreds of billions in revenues."

Because consumers of organic foods pay a huge premium—often more than 100 percent—for organic foods out of misguided desire to avoid pesticide risk, organic agriculture is a colossal food hoax, says Stanford scientist and author Henry I. Miller.

Local has its vulnerabilities, too. It's not just at the farmers market, where, according to USA Today network, some of the vegetables for sale may have in fact come from your store. But the entire concept of local and "farm-direct" is now up for scrutiny.


How local is local? Home-grown Nebraska tomatoes...in a Kansas City grocery store

Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong, writes, “What’s come about now is that farm-to-table is so widespread and so established, and so many [retailers] are doing it, that it’s become a new kind of branding.” It's empty branding, he argues, that has nothing to do with the professed aims of local and everything to do with tricking the consumer out of her dollar.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't sustainably fake the authenticity consumers are longing for when they buy local. So the fact that 90 percent of locally sourced food is originating with farms grossing more than a quarter million dollars annually puts grocers riding that train at risk of appearing to be inauthentic.

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