Larry Olmsted didn’t set out to become a bestselling authority on fake food, but found that he couldn’t ignore “the pure audacity of the fakeness” of one particular item, Kobe beef.
This is the famously marbled (and lavishly priced) beef from Japan. Olmsted tasted it years ago during a trip to Japan and never forgot how distinctive — how almost creamy — this beef looked and tasted.
Once some U.S. steakhouse menus began featuring Kobe beef, he’d sometimes try it, only to be baffled by how “it was nothing like I remembered,” he said. Frozen beef travels well, “so there was no reason it shouldn’t taste just as good here as in Japan if you start with the same meat.”
A Google search revealed the source of Olmsted’s bewilderment: There was a ban on importation of Kobe beef from Japan due to concerns over mad cow disease. (It’s since been lifted.) Whatever those chefs were cooking, it wasn’t Kobe.
Yet the brand was turning up on menus everywhere, from filets to sliders. Perplexed and outraged, Olmsted wrote a column for Forbes magazine titled “Food’s Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie.” In his 20 years as a freelance journalist with thousands of bylines, no story ignited such a response.
“People were inflamed, mostly feeling ripped off,” he said. Granted, he added, “most Americans are never faced with the decision of buying a $300 Kobe beef dinner. But what if there was a more important issue here?”
Olmsted, who speaks Thursday in the Talk of the Stacks series held by the Hennepin County Libraries, began investigating food and quickly discovered that suckers aren’t just lollipops, but millions of consumers who shop, cook and dine.
“Anytime you can sell a cheaper product and pass it off as a more expensive product, people will do that,” he said. “It’s that simple. Sometimes that’s illegal, Sometimes it’s not.”
The result are products such as Parmesan cheese extended with wood fibers, olive oil diluted with soybean oil, tea that’s little more than dried and dyed foliage, or seafood dishes touting lobster and shrimp that actually have more tilapia and cod than anything else.
How did things get so haywire?
“This is definitely tied to Americans becoming more distanced from where their food comes from,” he said. “We’re not living on farms. We buy fileted fish so we don’t know what a whole fish looks like.”
But such shenanigans have been going on for centuries, he said. Ancient Greeks adulterated their olive oil. During medieval times, flour and tea were laced with fillers that had nothing to do with grains or caffeine, mostly because the tampering was so difficult to detect.
“The harder anything is to distinguish with the naked eye, the more subject it is to adulteration,” Olmsted said. The motivation is simple economics, a producer trying to get more for less. “Nobody sits back and says, ‘Hey, just for fun, I’m going to make poisonous food for consumers.’ ”
The danger of fake food
Is fake food dangerous? Or just duplicitous?
It can be both. People with food allergies need to be sure of a food’s origins and purity. Children and pregnant women need to avoid fish associated with mercury content, but those fish may be used to extend pricier species.
Nor is this only an American issue. Europeans faced the unsettling news several years ago when some brands of ground beef and products made with it, such as frozen lasagna, were found to have significant proportions of horse meat. Chinese honey is so badly adulterated that its import to the U.S. is specifically banned.
So U.S. regulatory agencies can be quite effective. Except when they’re not. So what’s a consumer to do?
Olmsted urges people to write to their congressional representatives with concerns about food quality. “Ultimately, being vocal about issues does get attention.”
For example, Olmsted said that the Food and Drug Administration has struggled for decades with the quality of imported olive oil, with tests often finding it diluted with cheaper oils. “But lacking enough enforcement ability, they just gave up,” he said.
But over the past two years, pressure from Olmsted’s book and an exposé on “60 Minutes” motivated Congress to direct the FDA to resume testing of imported olive oils, citing concerns for their allergen potential, “because if you’re allergic to peanuts and peanut oil is not on the label, that’s a problem.”
Shop, cook smarter
While he’s ringing the gong about fake food, Olmsted wants to be considered solution-oriented. His bestseller “Real Food, Fake Food” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 324 pages, $16.95) isn’t an unending screed about duplicitous producers, but also a primer into how many foods are produced and their centuries of history.
He urges consumers to buy foods in their original forms as much as possible, such as coffee beans instead of ground coffee. “Real food” likely costs more, because it’s free of chemicals and raised or grown ethically, so he eats less beef than he used to, but when he indulges, he splurges on excellent cuts.
He wants people to shop smarter and cook at home more often.
Study food labels and be wary when the number of ingredients hits double digits, he said, noting a brand of frozen pizza with 52 separate ingredients. It’s not difficult to make fresh pizza at home, he said. Buy freshly made dough from your local market, make a sauce of high-quality canned tomatoes and some salt, and buy fresh mozzarella and pepperoni from reputable producers.
How about the growing trend toward meal kits delivered to your doorstep? Are they a plus or a minus when it comes to sourcing “real food”?
“I’m sort of on the fence with this,” he said. “From a ‘real food, fake food’ perspective, they tend to have quality ingredients. Some of these products can be bit hard to source, and these companies can buy X number of pounds of something more easily than individuals can, so that puts good food in people’s hands.
“However, there’s a certain environmental cost. I’m not a green zealot, but the amount of packaging kind of disturbs me. The meal kits seem like just another layer of transportation and fuel costs.
“But if they make people healthier and happier, that’s good,” he said. “It often feels like we’re moving two steps forward and one step back, but I’m an optimist at heart.”