It is more important than ever before to know exactly where your food comes from. Recently, I have seen news stories investigating false labeling of such common food products as Parmesan cheese, olive oil, Kobe beef, and fish of all kinds, especially sushi. While the local food movement has helped to encourage some producers and vendors to be clear about the origins of their products, mainstream food distribution practices make it more difficult than ever to know the sources of foods and ingredients.
In the grocery store, it’s always important to ask questions and read labels. But there is no substitute for buying food either directly from the farm, or from stores with close relationships to local farms and food producers.
Forbes contributor Larry Olmsted has investigated “fake” versions of all kinds of foods for his book, Real Food Fake Food. Parmesan cheese, Kobe beef, olive oil, fish, sushi, honey… the list goes on and on, and it is surprising and a little bit overwhelming to learn the details of just how much deception there is in the production, packaging, and sales of food products in America.
My favorite chapter title in Olmsted’s book is “Real Food Comes From Real Places.” Real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for instance, is produced, packaged, and even grated in one region according to very specific regulations. The regulations include requirements as to the feed for the cows that produce the milk, and all kinds of other specifications that protect the designation and value of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. You can see them here.
But when we buy a mass-produced food product off the shelves of a supermarket, it is nearly impossible to know where the ingredients come from. The ingredients label will never say “wood chips,” but there just might be wood chips in your grated cheese! That cheese may be named “Parmesan,” although it could contain NONE of the ingredients of the Italian namesake, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The ingredients list might or might not say “cellulose,” a filler, but it most certainly will not tell you that your grated cheese is way over the legal limit set by the FDA for such fillers.
Parmesan may sound like a translation or nickname for Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it is not only possible, but most likely that anything you buy in the U.S. with this name will bear little or no resemblance to the actual namesake.
Bloomberg News reported last year on independent testing of widely distributed food products labeled Parmesan cheese. The findings were alarming. The FDA found one brand labeled “100% grated Parmesan cheese” that was actually a mixture of Swiss, mozzarella, white cheddar and cellulose, a filler. One Parmesan cheese producer estimates that 20% of U.S. produced Parmesan cheese is mislabeled, and less than 40% of grated Parmesan is actually even a cheese product.
Did you know that for years, there was a total ban on imports of Japanese beef into the United States? During that time, restaurants across the country, mostly in major metropolitan areas, were offering Kobe beef that could not possibly have been authentic. The name Kobe beef applies exclusively to beef raised in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. According to Larry Olmstead, Only 3,000-4,000 head of cattle each year qualify as Kobe after strict grading, and this is the total world production of real Kobe beef. About 90% of all Kobe beef stays in Japan, and less than 5,000 pounds comes to the U.S. each year. All Kobe beef imported from Japan is boneless. So beware any menu that is offering a bone-in Kobe steak, like a rib-eye. The U.S. does not regulate the use of the term Kobe, so markets and restaurants can call anything Kobe, raise the price accordingly, and fool lots of people.
You can buy delicious, top quality grass-fed steaks at local farms and at discriminating restaurants. Maybe it isn’t Kobe, but you KNOW where it’s from, how the animals were raised and fed and treated…. And that is worth a lot more than paying a fortune for a name that cannot be verified.
When we buy from local farmers and producers, and the stores that carry their products, we can ask questions of people who actually know the answers. We can trust the list of simple ingredients listed on the package, and on the off chance that there is something unpronounceable or unfamiliar on the label, we can get a straight answer as to what it is and why it’s there.
Remember, “Real Food Comes From Real Places!”
Joanne Malino, a certified Integrative Nutrition Coach, co-founded Profeta Farms with her husband, Paul Profeta, and General Manager, John Place. Joanne helps people to optimize their health and energy by choosing the best, cleanest, most wholesome foods available. She is passionate about providing a wide variety of local, organic, great-tasting foods to the surrounding area, and educating people about the importance of knowing where their food comes from.