The old adage “you are what you eat” seems like a pretty innocuous and straight forward saying that can be interpreted to draw attention to the connection between what you consume and where it came from. With the recent uptick in “food consciousness,” such denotations as fair trade, hormone-free, grass-fed, cage-free, all-natural and of course, the Holy Grail of monikers, organic, continue to be ever more present and linked to our consumption habits. However, beyond the aforementioned denominations of food, there is a whole other realm of food labeling and sourcing that can be incredibly misinforming and deceitful.
Perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings is due to appellation. Appellation refers to the authority of a specific geographic region to produce and market a product under very particular parameters. These guidelines include very specific methods, processes, and purity standards for said product to meet or exceed in order to be labeled as coming from that specific region. Perhaps the most well-known example of this applies to “Champagne.” Champagne is a wine growing region of France world famous for their very high quality production of sparkling white wines. The distinction of true champagnes only coming from Champagne was so important to the producers, that in 1891, The Treaty of Madrid was created to give France the legal right to create this distinction internationally (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Madrid_%281891%29). Even though Champagne is as an example, the treaty also covers such appellations for wines such as Chianti (Italy), Port (Portugal) and even cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese from Parma, Italy). The treaty had 56 states sign on in agreement, but the U.S. was not one of them. This issue of appellation was of such importance that not only did the Treaty of Versailles (which officially ended World War I) ensure the dissolving of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and dismantling of German military and economic resources, the drafters of the treaty put in clauses to reinforce the condition of champagnes only coming from Champagne. Once again, the U.S. did not sign.
Today, the European Union has 600 geography-designated products, but the U.S. still lags behind in its accordance with the treaty. Back in 2003, the U.S. did sign the “Madrid Protocol”, which allows for a “trademark owner to seek registration in any of the countries that have joined the Madrid Protocol,” but each country is still allowed to “apply their own rules and laws to determine whether or not the mark may be protected in their jurisdiction” (http://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/law/madrid/). That being said, Congress in 2006 did prohibit American wine companies from putting “Champagne” on their labels unless they had approval to use the term before 2006 and that they also label the wine’s origin (e.g. California). While small steps, initiating such measures should only help if the tables are turned on American producers in case other countries were to start producing wines called “Napa” or “Sonoma” to take advantage of the notoriety of wines from those Californian vineyards.
Another misleading food item is Kobe beef. Kobe beef has a reputation for unparalleled marbling and flavor, but true Kobe beef is produced only in the Hyoyo region of Japan, and can fetch prices of $45/oz. once it reaches here to the U.S. Not only is it very expensive, but it is very limited and hard to find. Japan produces only 3,000-4,000 head of cattle that qualify as Kobe a year, and even then, only 5 and 17 head, respectively, have been imported into the U.S. in 2012 and 2013. Comparing these handful of Japanese cattle against the 29 million head of cattle produced annually in the U.S. really brings doubt into the prevalence of authentic Kobe beef being served at your local fine dining location even if they advertise that they do (http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2012/04/12/foods-biggest-scam-the-great-kobe-beef-lie/). A real cut of Kobe beef should come with a certificate (in Japanese) that traces it back to a cow with a unique 10 digit ID number and scannable QR code that can be accessed on the Kobe Beef Council’s website (http://www.kobe-niku.jp/englishtop.html). As consumers have become aware of this, many in the cattle and restaurant industry have switched to more ambiguous terms as “Kobe style”, “American Kobe”, “Waygu”, etc. in an attempt to be less dishonest with their dishonesty.
The initial intent of these laws serve as a means to protect and promote domestic production of consumer goods in the U.S., but it is still confusing, and I feel misleading, to uneducated consumers who buy “Parmesan” cheese from a dairy in Wisconsin or pay hundreds of dollars for a “Kobe” steak from a cow raised in Oklahoma.
Beyond deceptiveness of where food items imply they come from, there is an even more nefarious side to what a label says, and what it actually is. A perfect example of this is with olive oil. A recent University of California Davis study of 186 extra virgin olive oils tested in accordance with the International Olive Council’s standards revealed that 73% failed in meeting the standards, and some estimates have that 69% of all extra virgin olive oil in the U.S. is fake altogether (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/04/olive-oil-real-thing). The reason for this isn’t quite clear, but there have been books and multiple investigative reports written that delve into the shady olive oil trade. The general thought about the olive oil industry and its apparent façade is that multiple countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, etc.) ship multiple types of oil (sunflower, canola, cottonseed, and soybean) to Naples, where it all gets mixed together at processing plants before getting slapped with “Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil” and getting put on your local grocer’s shelf.
Even potentially more disheartening situations occur in the fish market. Recent studies by universities and independent groups find that a large portion of fish served in restaurants and stores are not what they are said to be. Fish sampling via DNA analysis found that 1/3 of 1,215 fish samples taken across 674 retail sellers in 21 states were wrong for what species was advertised (http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2013/02/21/fake-fish-on-shelves-and-restaurant-tables-across-usa-new-study-says/). Some areas of the nation, including Southern California and Texas, had mislabeled fish for 50% of the samples. The most glaring example gleaned from these studies found that only 6%, or 7 out of 120, fish labeled red snapper actually were.
All of these aforementioned stories warrant the “buyer beware” mentality and use of commonsense, but at the same time, there should also hopefully be a certain level of accountability and trust that exists between seller and buyer. Not everyone has the time or money to analyze the DNA of their sushi rolls or have a lab run tests on olive oil for purity, so it can be hard. Perhaps, if anything, such occurrences should help us be reminded of our relative disconnect between what we eat, and where and how it comes to our dinner plate.