So a couple weeks ago, I promised @copperbadge a review of the book I was currently reading, “Sorting the Beef from the Bull: The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.” And then my cat had a life threatening medical emergency (he’s okay!) and I got a little distracted. But, hey, better late than never, right?
First things first. I’m not a huge chemistry nerd. The word “science” is in the title for a reason. There’s a fair amount of it in here. I skimmed most of it. But there are two other aspects to the book that are fascinating and, honestly, rather terrifying. First, actual stories of food fraud throughout the world and history. Second, the non-immediate implications of it, looking at what it means for politics, economics, health, and the environment. It’s an extremely strong argument for the importance of regulations and, if you’re not terrified by the current push in the US government to deregulate, you will be. It’s a sadly timely book.
It starts out with an overview of the field, a couple anecdotes of food fraud (fake eggs in China, horse meat found in hamburger in UK grocery stores- one of the authors is British, so lots of examples from there), a breakdown of some of the scientific methods using the example of honey and why the whole issue is important.
Most people probably can think of the economic implications of things like olive oil being cut with cheaper oils. Consumers lose out on money, because we’re paying for a product based on the label, not what’s in it. Plus, it impacts honest sellers who have their market undercut by the cheaters. Raises some interesting questions on the idea that deregulation makes for a “freer” market place.
The environmental implications are also concerning, and frankly, I may stop eating seafood. Turns out a lot of fish is mislabeled. Some of this can be chalked up to inconsistent naming conventions across countries, but given that fish are almost always mislabeled as more expensive varieties, that’s doubtful. But, important for those of us who try to eat responsibly, there have been cases of endangered species relabeled as allowable ones. Apparently, seafood laundering is a real thing. (A terrible thing, with a name that cracks me up). And good luck trying to be sure that your organic food is really organic. you may just be paying extra for the same stuff the rest of us are eating.
But the scariest is the health implications. Olive oil is a good example in two cases. Mostly, you’re just overpaying, but it’s been adulterated with peanut oil in some cases. And then there’s the Toxic Oil Syndrome in Spain, where colza oil intended for industrial use was sold as “olive oil” in 1981 and killed over 600 people. Other horrifying examples include “monkfish” that turned out to be puffer fish (yikes!), fake baby formula in China, and chicken deemed not fit for human consumption that was washed up, trimmed of the ugly bits and then sold.
Some of it is not so horrifying from a health perspective, but more offends our sensibilities. The horse meat example, for instance, is not something that would hurt many people’s health. Heck, it’s probably lower in fat than beef. Ground meat was commonly found to contain other meat sources than the label said. All beef products, such as sausages, were found to contain chicken or pork, the later of which would certainly offend Jewish and Muslim consumers, but I’m fairly sure most religions don’t hold you responsible for something you are completely unaware of. A few have been found to contain rat, which certainly makes us go “ick” but unless it’s diseased, it probably won’t hurt us.
The end result is a very strong argument of the importance of funded regulatory bodies, because the average consumer can’t determine this stuff for themself. Heck, the average chemist probably can’t figure out some of this stuff, because it’s ever evolving and our global food stream means there are too many points along the way where it takes one person looking to make a buck to screw people over, and people are really fucking creative at times. There are some amazing ways to catch issues, but a lot of people won’t want to pay for them, so only a portion of cases get caught.
I was talking with a friend about the book and her response was “Wow, that’s important to know. Not sure I WANT to know.” True that.