We're All Paying Top-Dollar for Fake Food

In 2002, Larry Olmsted ate one of the richest, best steaks he's ever had. The food and travel columnist for Forbes and USA Today was at the Park Hyatt Tokyo to sample the highest-grade Japanese Kobe beef, which has the mouthfeel of beef fat melting on the tongue. As Olmsted recounts in his new book, Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating & What You Can Do About It, the meat had the texture of butter and was speckled with white dots "as if it had been hit with a shotgun shell of fat."

Over the next decade, whenever Olmsted sampled Kobe beef in American steakhouses, he wondered, "Why doesn't it taste as good?" There is a simple answer: Currently, only eight American restaurants serve the real thing (among them, 212 Steakhouse in Manhattan, Alexander's Steakhouse in San Francisco, and three pricey steak joints in Las Vegas). Less than 400 pounds of Kobe beef come into the U.S. a month. So when Wall Street big shots wow clients with $300 "Kobe" entrées, and they're not at one of these eight elite, the odds are that they're being taken for a ride. After exposés by Olmsted and Inside Edition, Manhattan's prestigious Le Bernardin took the Kobe name off its menu, but thousands of cheaper joints go on selling "Kobe" steaks and sliders. "What appealed to me about this story was that it was so transparent," Olmsted says. "The restaurants are lying to you, and they know they are lying to you."

The shamelessness of the Kobe scam inspired Olmsted to hit the road in search of other fake foods, a two-and-a-half-year journey that packs his book with more than a dozen fraud scandals. He went to rural Kobe, Japan, to interview the veterinarian who explained the scarcity (only 12 genetically ideal Kobe bulls are selected to impregnate the entire Kobe herd); to Parma, Italy, to obsess over the medieval cheesemaking technique that ensures real Parmesan cheese is better than any imitation; and to Mississippi's Gulf Coast to spend time on a shrimping boat whose catch puts the farmed Asian stuff — what most of us unknowingly eat — to shame. The fake foods, by contrast, didn't require exotic travel. They were hiding in plain sight in supermarkets and on restaurant menus across the country.

Fraud is big business — nearly $50 billion a year, according to one estimate — and some of the current fraud plays into our lust for finer foods, says John Spink, Ph.D., director of  Michigan State University's Food Fraud Initiative. The brand status attached to luxury cars and watches has migrated to what we put in our mouths. So much so that these days we are what we eat — and more and more that's grass-fed beef and heirloom tomatoes. This new culture of the healthy and the artisanal has created such high demand and soaring prices that, Spink says, "the fraud opportunity increases." At a primal level, this sparks feelings of betrayal. Those of us who don't grow our own food depend on a supply chain for the meals on our table. When fraud is discovered, the trust holding together that chain is broken. "Food is a very personal relationship compared with, say, luxury sunglasses," Spink says. "You begin to wonder, 'What else is in there that I don't know about?' "

For Olmsted's money, the worst possible answer to that question comes from the seafood industry. "In many cases, counterfeit fish is the fish market," he writes. The U.S. actually catches a huge amount of wild, clean fish, especially from Alaska, he explains, but most of that gets exported to wealthy international markets. The seafood we eat is 91 percent imported, mostly from Southeast Asia, where it's typically farmed in conditions that are abysmal — for both the fish and the human workers. (Olmsted asserts that the average imported fish travels 5,475 miles before it becomes our dinner.) Swapping cheaper species for more expensive ones is so routine, he says, that some of the most frequently consumed fish — escolar, ponga, swai — are types most of us of which have never heard.

Escolar seems like a particular prize, known in food circles as "Ex-Lax of the sea." Says Olmsted: "You eat sushi regularly, and sooner or later it will happen. You'll think, 'I had some bad tuna.' But the real reason you're sick is that you didn't have tuna."

While fake foods may not severely harm your health, you're likely deceived nearly every time you eat out. Restaurants are under no legal obligation to play by the rules the FDA and USDA set for food producers, and Olmsted wagers that "most restaurants are lying about something." We don't have a comprehensive national survey of menu tampering, but the snapshots we do have aren't encouraging. A study by the nonprofit organization Oceana looked at 16 New York sushi eateries, ranging from high-end to low, and found that all were guilty of fraud, such as replacing white tuna with escolar, and snapper with tilapia. A Tampa Bay Times exposé found a similar unanimity: All restaurants the newspaper investigated were guilty of lying about the provenance of their meats and produce. As Nathanael Johnson, author of All Natural, a skeptic's guide to healthy living, puts it, if you order lamb, it is likely lamb, "but it's probably not from 'Rainbow and Unicorns Farms.' " Olmsted's ordering rule of thumb is: "The more adjectives I see on a menu, the more I feel like I'm about to be ripped off."

In his book, Olmsted drives home the idea that skepticism is our best prevention against being duped. He also outlines specific ways to minimize exposure to fakes. After reading it, though, you can't help but feel jaded when heading to the neighborhood sushi or burger joint. Say what you will about McDonald's, Olmsted says, "but at least they don't tell you it's pastured, grass-fed beef."