The headlines were hard to miss, even for non-foodies: "The Parmesan Cheese You Sprinkle on Your Penne Could Be Wood," "FDA Warns the Parmesan You Eat May Be Wood Pulp," "Cheese Exec Pleads Guilty in Wood Pulp Parmesan Scandal." Such were the gems that kicked off the great Parm-wood imbroglio of February 2016.
According to various reports, an FDA investigation found that some manufacturers were padding their pre-grated or shredded Parmesan cheese with excess amounts of fillers like cellulose, an anti-clumping agent made from plant waste, including wood pulp.
"That story broke just as my book was going to press," Larry Olmsted, a food journalist and author of the just-released Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating & What You Can Do About It, told VICE. Although the cover of his new book features a large hunk of what looks to be Parm, Olmsted's chapter on the cheese isn't about cellulose additives. It's about bewildering or nonexistent food regulations that allow US restaurants and retailers to label their cheese products as "Parmesan," even though the stuff in the green Kraft can bears almost no tactile or gustatory resemblance to Italy's storied Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Even some of the $20-per-pound Parms sold at specialty-food stores could be knockoffs from Argentina, "where the only legal standard governing its import is that it not be poisonous," Olmsted writes.
"But believe me, fake cheese is far from the biggest problem Americans face in the supermarket," he told me.
From mercury-laden "snapper" that's not really snapper to antibiotic-loaded honey, Olmsted's book details many of the common scams and counterfeits that make their way onto our dinner plates and into our grocery carts. Here, he answers questions about his book's most startling discoveries—and the implications fake food has for American health.
VICE: What was the biggest surprise for you during your research?
Larry Olmsted: Biggest single thing would probably be the restaurant side of all this. There's a long history of food adulteration, so I was not surprised that ground coffee or tea would be adulterated. But I was surprised to find the lack of regulation on the restaurant side and how often they lie with impunity. People say, "Oh, I only eat in nice restaurants, so I don't have to worry." But that's no protection. I wasn't prepared for the level of hyperbole on the restaurant side of the fence.
What kind of hyperbole are we talking about here?
The Tampa Bay Times did a big piece on restaurant fraud, especially for farm-to-table restaurants. It was a really good story, and they found that almost every restaurant was lying about something on its menu. And a lot of it had to do with seafood. Like, when you order red snapper, you're probably getting tilefish, which is often loaded with mercury. Or you order wild-caught salmon and get farmed salmon from Norway that's so high in heavy metals that people are advised not to eat it more than once a month. And that's not the worst end of fish farming. Let's talk about shrimp: Over 90 percent of the seafood we eat in the US is imported, and we consume more shrimp than any other kind of seafood. Most of it is farmed from Southeast Asia, and most of those farms have bad records of using banned or unapproved antibiotics. So there's no doubt to me that all this could have significant health effects, and that eating shrimp is one of the riskier propositions.
Are there not regulations governing all this?
There are some fed rules against misleading consumers, but they're very vague. In the book, I mentioned McCormick and Schmick. Very high-end restaurant chain. For a couple of years, they were advertising Kobe beef that wasn't actually Japanese. Complaints finally tipped the scales and led to a class-action suit. But in most cases, the damages a consumer could sue for is just the difference in cost between the $100 price they paid for a Kobe steak and the $10 steak it really was. So that's only $90. No lawyer is going to represent someone for that.
So there really isn't much risk for the restaurant, unless there's a class action suit. I think there's the potential as this gets more attention for more nonprofits to sue restaurants on principle, and I think that's warranted in some of these cases.
Should consumers blame restaurants and retailers, or are they getting duped too?
The supply chain is convoluted and opaque. But the FDA—in large part because of a government accountability survey I mention in the book that called for more regulation against seafood fraud—set up a new DNA testing lab for imported seafood. They started this pilot test of seafood labeling and found that 85 percent of seafood was labeled correctly at wholesale. So only 15 percent is mislabeled at wholesale. But that number more than doubles at the retail and restaurant level. So despite the length of the supply chain and all the middlemen, a lot of the deceit is really happening at the restaurant or retail level.
What are the harms that come from all this? I mean, apart from those fish loaded with mercury or metal, why is this bad for consumers?
Well, there's the economic fraud. You just overpaid for your steak. Also, in that Kobe beef example, the vast majority of beef in the US is what I'd call drug-laden. It's rich in hormones and animal byproducts, which basically turns cattle into carnivores when they're by nature herbivores. Lots of drugs used in US cattle. Real Kobe beef would have no drugs in it.
So on one level, you're being economically defrauded. And while there's a lot of debate over this, I would go so far as to say you're being poisoned and your health is in danger from all these added hormones and drugs. Of course there's the chance the restaurant could substitute drug-free meat for the Kobe, but most of our meat is not drug-free.
Also, a lot of our favorite geographically indicated products—like Parmigiano, Kobe, olive oil—there are very precise definitions for how they're traditionally made. Most producers ban steroids or hormones or drugs. That's true for many of these products. So their name carries an implied guarantee of quality and wholesomeness. When you get fake Parmigiano or olive oil, you're not getting wholesomeness. So there's the potential omission of health benefits. Parmigiano cheese, for example, was chosen by both NASA and the Soviet Space Program to go into space with astronauts because, for nutrition per ounce, it's like a wonder cheese. In Italy, it's one of the first things kids are given when they're weaned off mother's milk. Same with olive oil. All this wonderful heart health and anti-carcinogen and anti-Alzheimer's research. Every time they do a study they find something good about it. So if you get a lower-quality olive oil, you're also losing some of that nutritional quality—even if the lower quality isn't actually bad for you.
Wait, what's wrong with the olive oil I'm buying?
A number of studies and investigations have found various but significant levels of extra virgin olive oil sold in the US, especially mass-market supermarket brands, are not meeting the true standards for extra virgin. When I open a bottle of true olive oil, the aroma explodes out of the bottle, my kitchen smells like an olive grove, and the taste is transcendent. I've never found a supermarket bottle, even when labeled extra virgin—which is legally supposed to represent the very highest quality level—that did that.
What do I do about all this? How can I, as a consumer, ensure that what I'm buying is the genuine article?
That's the hard part. There's no one-size-fits-all solution. I give all the specifics in my book, but it varies depending on what you're buying.
Can you give me a few examples?
So for seafood, if you're buying retail, there are all these third-party auditors. The two biggest and most trusted are the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, which has a logo you can look for that's kind of like a fish and a check mark. I spoke with chef Rick Moonen, who's a big voice in sustainable fishing, and he said Marine Stewardship was one he absolutely believes in. The second one is the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) seal for farmed food.
Also, it depends where you buy it. I recommend Whole Foods. Not for everything. But they have good traceability when it comes to seafood. They'll say if it's wild caught and where it's from. Not everything they sell is good stuff, but they seem to be very transparent and honest about what they sell.
In restaurants, I'd watch out for snapper and tuna and shrimp. And I tend to watch out for what I call "value added adjectives." You see these menus listing Berkshire County pork chops and heritage-breed chickens and buffalo-milk mozzarella. If I see just one of those items, like it's their signature dish, then I believe it. But if everything on the menu is from small farms or has those premium adjectives, most restaurants can't afford that, so I tend not to believe it. It's just really easy to add those words and get more money.
What would you like people to take away from your book?
Everyone's focused on the shock and awe statistics. But it's about finding real foods, which are great and tend to be more wholesome and nutritious. They taste better.
I think a lot of this all goes to the disconnect we have from food. The old model was that you go to the market, and you buy what's fresh and local. We kind of have programmed ourselves to just open our cabinet. There's no rational reason to think that cheese is something you should be storing in your cabinet for a year and putting on food. You lose out on so many things when you eat like that. If you buy some fresh basil when making pizza, there's no problem. But it's once you decide you want a bag of dried basil in your cabinet that will last for two years—that's when you run into problems.