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September 07, 2016

Book Review: Are you eating counterfeit food?

Larry Olmsted Larry Olmsted/for PhillyVoice

The Food Fraud Initiative (FFI) estimates that fraudulent food nets about $50 billion annually. Yes, there's a Food Fraud Initiative.

You’ve probably heard about Parmesan cheese being sold with wood pulp in it. But what about knockoff olive oil? Fake Kobe beef? Fraudulent fish? In “Real Food Fake Food,” author Larry Olmsted delves into this weird and deceptive world, exposing myths about what we eat and the serious effects fake foods can have on our health.

  • “Real Food Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It”
  • By Larry Olmsted
  • Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Published July 12

The Food Fraud Initiative (FFI), which operates out of Michigan State University, estimates that fraudulent food nets about $50 billion annually. And it's not just exotic items being counterfeited, though specialty items are Olmsted’s main focus. It turns out everyday staples like orange juice, coffee, wine, rice, cheese and honey are all being woefully mislabeled.

“At their least malicious, these are rip-offs, defrauding us economically, depriving us of quality, and literally leaving a bad taste in our mouths,” writes Olmsted. “At their worst, they make us sick and may even kill us.”

So where’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when you need it? Turns out that there are very few guidelines in place to prevent a manufacturer from mislabeling the food we eat. Worse, the FDA doesn’t actually police food fraud.

Which is why, the author estimates, up to one-third of all seafood being sold in this country is purposely mislabeled. Olmsted estimates that the average person’s chance of actually getting the red snapper she ordered in a restaurant is about 6 percent. And whether you buy a cheap bottle of extra virgin olive oil or a pricey one, there’s an equal chance that neither is the real thing.

Where the book falls a bit short is its paltry recipes for “real food,” which smack of editorial mission creep (i.e. some editor pushed Olmsted to shove the recipes into an otherwise engaging investigative study). “Real Food Fake Food” forgets its purpose here. Just as a reader starts to really dig into the material, a recipe pops up to throw things off course. This isn’t the sort of book I’d keep on the kitchen counter.

But the book delivers on its main promise with no shortage of jaw-dropping accounts of international food makers seemingly going out of their way to mislead people. Olmsted also offers interesting anecdotes about the history of various foods, traveling, for instance, to Parma, Italy, where real Parmesan is made.

Most eye-opening, perhaps, is just how easy it is for big businesses to get away with lying to consumers — and how little we all seem to know or even care about where our food comes from.