Category Archives: food fraud


Shopping The Perimeter Of The Grocery Store

Is it Safe on the Outside?

There are over 50,000 items for sale in a typical grocery store. The sad truth is that most of them are not food. They are processed conglomerations of ingredients. Because of this, there’s a common myth that if you shop the perimeter of the grocery store you’ll be “safe” from food challenges. More and more people are shopping just the “outside” of the grocery store, convinced that if they avoid what’s in the middle they’re only getting healthy food. Unfortunately, this is not true.

Most grocery stores are set up in a similar pattern. Walk into the produce section which is usually near the bakery or the deli. Moving around the outside edges, the perimeter, of the grocery store you’ll find the fish counter, meat, poultry. The dairy section is at the back of the store. This is because the further into the store you have to walk to buy staple ingredients, such as milk, eggs, and butter, the more time you spend in the store. The longer you are there the more money you are likely to spend. On the inside aisles is where you’ll find all of the packaged, canned, and frozen foods. You often have to walk through them to get from one section to the next, increasing the possibility that you will be tempted by what is in the aisles.

Does It Belong Here?

While the fresh food is usually found on the perimeter of the grocery store it’s important to be aware of two big issues that impact that section of the grocery store. The first is something called product placement or product creep. Grocery stores and food producers are well aware that consumers are purchasing more heavily from the outer edges of the store. Their job, however, is to sell as much as they can. One way they try to influence consumers is by moving in items that would not normally be in a particular section (but that go with those foods).

One example of this would be finding packaged shortcake, glaze for strawberries, and cool whip or some form of canned whipped cream in the produce section at the height of strawberry season. The grocery store may attempt to promote this as being “for your convenience” but the truth is it’s there to tempt you to purchase it and to increase their sales and profits.

Unfortunately, if you don’t take the time to read the labels you may get more than you bargained for. That glaze for strawberries, for example, contains genetically modified ingredients, excessive sugars, artificial colors, and possibly MSG. Rather than just getting fresh fruit, if you purchase these add-on items you’re also buying a wide range of chemicals and additives which may be harmful to your health.

This happens all around the grocery store. Salad dressings by the salad, seasoning mixes and marinades by the meat, etc. Product placement is a big factor for grocery stores. As a matter of fact, food manufacturers pay something called a slotting fee to grocery stores to determine where in the store their product will appear. This idea of manipulating the perimeter is a big reason that eggs and dairy are all the way in the back of the store. The grocery chain, and by extension the food manufacturers, are looking to get you to spend as much time in the store as possible and encourage impulse buying. They know that the longer you are there the more you will spend.

What’s In What You’re Eating?

Another major concern with shopping the perimeter of the grocery store is not just what the food items are, but what’s in them. Unfortunately, it’s things that we can’t really see that pose an even bigger challenge to health.

Produce

When shopping in the produce department the second thing you need to be aware of is the Dirty Dozen. Those twelve fruits and vegetables which are highly contaminated by pesticides. Eating them increases the toxic body burden. This list changes each year as the Environmental Working Group evaluates the current state of pesticides and toxins used to grow produce. The only way to avoid the toxic burden of the Dirty Dozen is to purchase organic for those twelve fruits and vegetables. To make it easy to remember the list (and stay on top of the changes) simply download the Environmental Working Group’s free app, EWG Healthy Living (ios and android).

Meat and Poultry

In the meat and poultry section buying organic is your best choice. Conventionally raised animals are given high levels of antibiotics, partially to keep them healthy in spite of the crowded conditions they are raised in. It’s also because these antibiotics act as a growth stimulator. Unfortunately, the antibiotics are passed on through the to end product when we then wind up consuming them. It’s important to note that the overuse of antibiotics in farming has led to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bugs. Conventionally raised animals are also allowed to be raised on genetically modified (GM) feed which is often heavily laden with pesticides. These items can have an impact on your body as well as affecting the environment. Note that the term “natural” is not the same as organic. Although there are some rules around the natural label when it comes to meat products, this label still allows for the use of GM/pesticide-laden feed. The only way to avoid added hormones, pesticides, and genetic modification is to choose organic.

Dairy

The dairy section is another area of concern. Not only because of the antibiotics, GM feed, and high levels of pesticides found in conventionally sourced dairy products, but also because of added hormones. rBST sometimes referred to as rBGH, is a growth hormone which causes cows to produce more milk. Studies have shown that dairy with rBGH tends to have more Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). This, in turn, has been linked to cancer, specifically of the breast, prostate and gastrointestinal tract. Although it is possible to do the research and avoid dairy with added hormones if it is conventionally raised all of the other issues still remain. Once again, choosing organic is the best, healthiest option.

Summary

  • Be on the lookout for product creep — items that are in a category where they don’t belong
  • Be mindful of the Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetable, buying organic for those choices
  • Choose organic meats to avoid added hormones and antibiotics
  • Avoid added hormones and antibiotics in dairy products by choosing organic
  • Read labels to help you avoid negative ingredients

Repealing Country-of-origin Labeling Isn’t Cool

The House just voted to repeal Country-of-Origin labeling (COOL) for beef, chicken, and pork.  The reason that this happened makes sense but the fact that it happened at all makes no sense.  But first, a little background.

COOL was first signed into law in 2002 as part of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act as a voluntary labeling process.  Initially it was intended for the label on fresh beef, pork, and lamb products.  In 2003 it became mandatory to label COOL.  By 2008 the program was expanded and the current labeling requirement covers beef, veal, lamb, chicken, fish, shellfish, pork, goat, macadamia nuts, pecans, ginseng, peanuts, and perishable agricultural commodities.   For the purposes of this post I’m focusing on meat.

The intent of COOL was to clearly identify the chain of supply for fresh food.  If an item was destined for a processing plant where it would be significantly changed for example, turning fresh beef into a shepherd’s pie, that process would remove the need for COOL.  The FDA’s definition of processed is so broad that many foods were able to avoid using the label.

What does the label look like?  It’s confusing.  There’s no clear standards for a COO label.  It can be any size, font, color, location on the package.  There are standards about what it has to say but even there it can get a little confusing.  The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does publish a list of the standard terms acceptable for labeling which covers country names and their abbreviations as well as labeling options covering the chain of supply from birth to either slaughter or slaughter and import.  Prior to May 2013 even that was less than clear due to commingling.  This was the practice of allowing a single label for meat that has more than one country of origin as long as it was processed in the same slaughterhouse all on the same day.  Commingling is no longer allowed which should make for clearer labeling of where animals were born, raised, and slaughtered.

In theory the ability to know where your meat is coming from, where it was raised, is a good one.  In practice COOL does not work as advertised.  I believe part of this is due to the lack of consistency with labeling, a lack of clear understanding for the consumer, and too many loopholes.  I also believe that people really are paying more attention to where their food comes from, how it’s raised, and where it is processed.  They want to know but are confused about the label due to inconsistent and unclear implementation.

The supply chain can sometimes become very convoluted.  As the Horsemeat Gate Scandal in the early part of 2013 highlighted, our food can travel a great distance before it lands on our dinner plate.  This unfortunate incident where horesemeat was fraudulently sold as beef only revealed the scale of travel for processing not for birth and rearing.  Obviously because it was processed it also would have been able to sidestep a COOL process had one been in place.

Horsemeat Gate also revealed a significant breakdown in the traceability of where our meat comes from.  The EU is currently investigating possible solutions to prevent this from happening again.  Something along the lines of COOL comes to mind, but only if it’s properly implemented.  It’s important to note that this was by no means a stand-alone incident, it was simply the biggest, most reported on episode.  There have also been incidents in China such as a 2013 investigation into the use of rat, mink, and fox meat being adulterated and sold as mutton.  And it doesn’t seem to get better.  Just last year there was a recall in China of donkey meat contaminated with fox.  These incidents, by the way, give serious pause to the thought of eating any meat from China.  And yet the USDA has approved the import of American raised chickens to China for processing and then re-imported for sale. Currently the transportation costs for poultry are too expensive and it does not appear that any American producers are doing this.  Unfortunately, if they do, it may be hard to know because the chicken would come back in a processed form that would thereby allow it to avoid COOL.

So why is COOL on the chopping block?  In a single word, politics.  Canada and Mexico filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) claiming that COOL was discriminatory.  It is interesting to note that China is listed as one of the third parties in the complaint.  Canada contends that meatpackers offer lower prices for their products.  Not because they are lesser quality, but because the meat packers don’t want to track and label the meat.  Canadian producers claim this has cost them nearly US$1 billion.  Unfortunately the WTO agreed with the plaintiffs.  This is the second time they’ve done so, the first time the US reworked COOL but apparently this was not perceived as being enough.  Now Canada and Mexico are threatening import taxes on certain products from the United States unless COOL is repealed.  Due to fears about trade the House has voted to dismantle COOL altogether.  The next step is to go before the Senate.

This is a huge mistake.  While the process of modification on any legislation is certainly challenging, the fact remains that this program was never thoroughly laid out or utilized to begin with.  Given the increasing issues with food contamination, adulteration, mis-labeling, and because of sourcing concerns it makes sense to keep COOL and more clearly identify the supply chain for our food.  Consumers want to know, and have the right to know, where their food comes from.

 

Are You Getting Real Olive Oil?

file0002113137533

A class action suit has been filed regarding the purity of olive oil; you can read about it here.  I wrote briefly about this issue in my book The Pantry Principle. It is a sad fact that more olive oil is sold than what is grown. There was also a study by the University of California, Davis about how many oils failed to pass mass spectrometry tests for being pure olive oil.  While the testing only looked at oils sold in California it is reasonable to assume that national and international brands were equally affected.  How does this happen? Sadly it’s because they dilute , or adulterate, it with other oils.  That’s food fraud.

Unfortunately there’s no other explanation than cost.  Olive oil is expensive.  Diluting it with cheap, highly refined oils generates more profit.  Similarly the use of poor quality olives (either over-ripe or damaged in some way) and mis-labeling it as a higher quality must also be in search of profit.  I cannot find any other reason for this.

What this does is highlight the fact that when it comes to olive oil it’s very important to know your source.  While the label appears to be your only indicator, as we see here, it is often misleading.  It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out in the courts.

In the meantime it’s important to know your fats.  In addition to the brands listed in the University of California report as being high quality olive oil it is possible to seek out smaller growers and importers.  I have a very limited number of fats that I use. I have a few more on my trusted list that I would use if I couldn’t source or, in the case of ghee, make my own.   The ones that I have listed on my Resources Page are oils that I have personally had the opportunity to taste and to speak to the producers.

My top three daily fats are:

Kirkland brand organic, extra virgin, cold pressed olive oil – yes, they were one of only 5 determined to be pure by the UC, Davis study. There are other specialty olive oils that I like as a treat, but for everyday use this is the one. 


Nutiva brand organic cold pressed coconut oil – I am a big fan of Nutiva organic and I purchase it by the gallon.   It’s also important to know that while coconut oil is a saturated fat it is a healthy saturated fat.  As a saturated fat it will be solid in cold temperatures and liquid in warm ones.  This is normal and perfectly fine.  There is no need to throw it out because, “it melted.”

Ghee – usually I make my own. But when I see them at a conference (which is at least 3 times a year) I’ll treat myself to a jar or two of Pure Indian Foods ghee which is fabulous. They also have a delicious coconut ghee mixture which is wonderful.

Sourcing is important! With your olive and coconut oils always buy extra virgin, cold pressed for best quality and organic to avoid pesticide residue.

For ghee make sure that the milk is from cows not treated with artificial hormones, antibiotics, fed pesticides or GMOs, and grass fed is best.

 

photo: joeb

You Can’t Sue Me Now

General Mills wants to turn Facebook likes into a legal agreement. The company has created a new privacy policy which basically states that anyone who has received “any” benefit from General Mills gives up their right to sue the company.  Even if the product in some way harms them or makes them ill.  General Mills has gone so far as to include giving them a “like” on their Facebook page as a benefit to the consumer.  The concept of benefits also extends to downloading coupons, signing up for contests, or any other form of interaction.  A consumers only recourse if they have an issue with the company will be either a negotiation process with the company or a binding arbitration, with the arbitration team no doubt chosen by General Mills.

Why was this policy enacted?  It appears to stem from an incident where two moms sued the company for deceptive marketing over their use of the term “natural” on a product which contained high fructose corn syrup and genetically modified ingredients.  Last month it came before a judge who refused to dismiss the case so it will be moving forward.

This is not the first time General Mills has been sued for deceptive practices.  In 2012 it was sued for using the word “strawberry” on a fruit roll-up product that contained no strawberries.  The case was settled and General Mills agreed to stop using that word on the package.

So why is there a picture of a Larabar at the top of this post?  Because guess who owns that brand?  In the “Who Owns Your Food” section of The Pantry Principle I share a graphic which highlights just how confusing and overwhelming the web of food has become in this country.  While I’m not sure (because I’m not a lawyer) if this position is defensible, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s stupid.  If you don’t want people to get upset about what you do to your food, don’t do that.  If you claim ingredients which aren’t in there, people have a right to be upset.  If you use deceptive marketing you should not be allowed to get away with it simply to make a buck.  Why defend your position to do the wrong thing?  That makes no sense to me.

And a startling thought that occurs to me, I  wonder if they will extend this legal stance to other brands where the consumer may not be aware of ownership.  So I’m highlighting the brands that I’m aware of which are owned by General Mills below.  Many of them may surprise you.

  • Cascadian Farms Organic
  • Food Should Taste Good (chips/snack product)
  • Larabar
  • Muir Glen tomato products
  • Liberte yogurt
  • Häagen-Dazs
  • Nature Valley
  • And if you’re interested…the list of mainstream Big G products is HUGE.  If you want to see all of them (and there are hundreds) you can look on their website http://www.generalmills.com/Brands

Want to let General Mills know how you feel about this issue? Sign this petition

And then buy a copy of The Pantry Principle: how to read the label and understand what’s really in your food.

Update:  After a furious backlash from consumers and an overwhelmingly negative media focus General Mills has reversed itself on this decision.  Their blog post (entitled “We’ve listened – and we’re changing our legal terms back”) claims that “Those terms – and our intentions – were widely misread.”  They also offered an apology.

Whether their lawyers had a specific purpose in mind or if indeed the intent was misunderstood, it is a given that companies are going to spin things their way every change they get.  The most important thing to remember, as far as I’m concerned, is that this once again shows the effect a highly motivated and vocal public can have on corporate policy.  They won’t change and do better unless they believe they have to.

Let’s not forget one of my favorite quotes by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

 

photo: Bradley Stemke

On My Mind Monday 03.18.13

on my mind -- what's in the news

It’s never the same two weeks in a row. A collection of what I find interesting in the world of food, nutrition, and holistic health. Here’s what’s on my mind.

Honey Laundering – It appears that the Chinese have been at it again. I don’t mean to keep pointing the finger at them, but what is it that causes them to so vigorously attempt to adulterate such a wide variety of foods? This time US Immigration and Homeland Security discovered Chinese honey which was potentially laced with illegal antibiotics was re-routed to avoid fees and potential testing. The solution to this kind of food fraud is to get to know whose bees you are buying from. Local and raw honey is better for you anyway.

Vitamin D3 may help to clear amyloid placques – these are the placques that are linked to Alzheimer’s Disease. It appears that vitamin D3 may be supportive against both the onset and the pathology of Alzheimer’s. Once again it appears that it’s important to know what your vitamin D levels are and to get enough. For many of us that does mean supplementation. Vitamin D3 levels can be checked by a simple blood test. Contact me if you would like more information about this.

VT House committee backs labeling of GMO – Prop 37 may have failed in California but it opened the eyes of many consumers who had no idea just how contaminated their food is. I was fortunate enough to hear Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology speak about this issue and he pointed out that food producers can’t sweep the knowledge of what they’ve done back under the carpet. People know and this is one fight that isn’t simply going to go away.

Chemical Cuisine Food App – For those of you that have a smart phone, iPhone, iPad or other smart device here’s an app you need to get. Produced by the Center for Science in the Public Interest it is an additive database that lists a wide array of “things” that have been added to our food. While I don’t agree with everything they say (ie, there are some things that they say are safe that I feel should be avoided) this and my book, The Pantry Principle: how to read the label and understand what’s really in your food, are an excellent place to start cleaning up your diet. And the best part? It’s free.

What’s Mira Reading: I just received my copy of Food: An Atlas which was funded via a Kickstarter campaign. It’s a fascinating look at food in a variety of ways all over the world. It’s a great coffee table book as well as an inspiration of food topics.

Video of the Week: Easter is coming. For many that means and overwhelming abundance of conventional treats possibly loaded with massive amounts of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. My friend Wardee over at Gnowfglins has a video showcasing a wonderful sweet treat and shows you how to make it.

photo: alvimann

On My Mind Monday 03.11.13

on my mind -- what's in the news
It’s never the same two weeks in a row. A collection of what I find interesting in the world of food, nutrition, and holistic health. Here’s what’s on my mind.

Aspartame in Milk – Those of you who follow along on my Facebook page have already heard about this issues and how upset I am. Bad enough that they want to use aspartame in milk. The horror of this newest petition to the FDA is that the organizations involved want the FDA to remove the requirement to label the presence of aspartame in the dairy products. It does currently appear in a number of dairy items but it’s presence must be disclosed. If the request is successful it potentially could mean that you might be consuming dairy with this health-harming product in it. Not a good thing. If you’re as upset as I am, the FDA is seeking public comment and you can tell them how you feel.

Did Your Grandmother’s Smoking Habit Give You Asthma? – This is epigenetics at work. Genetic switches turned on and off by exposures. Although far from definitive it appears that there is a strong possibility that a grandmother who smoked cigarettes can have a genetic impact on her grandchildren even if her own children did not smoke. Hopefully this news will help more people decide to quit smoking.

Pink Slime Mfr Seeking $1.2 BILLION – Apparently if consumers find out what’s really in their food and decide not to eat it rather than accepting that the new paradigm is for the manufacturers to sue those who reported on the issue. Not the person or organization who came up with the term “pink slime” (that would be a scientist at the USDA btw) but the news media because they have deeper pockets. How about instead of trying to feed people food that was made from left-over bits and ammonia they just used real food? Hmmmm…now there’s a thought for you.

What’s Mira reading: I just finished the final revisions on The Pantry Principle and am eagerly awaiting the print proof copy. I think I’ll take a break from reading for a week or so as I’ve read/proofed/edited my own book to the exclusion of almost anything else for weeks.

Video of the Week: Not sure what to think about this, apparently a new(ish) food fraud scandal in China is selling concrete filled walnut shells. The story was originally reported a year ago but has just now surfaced in food news.

photo: Alvimann