The Funny Problem of Food Fraud

How do you know that your pinot noir is really from 2004? Or that the wild salmon you ordered wasn't actually farmed? You don't. The Washington...

How do you know that your pinot noir is really from 2004? Or that the wild salmon you ordered wasn't actually farmed? You don't. The Washington Post reports on the problem of "food fraud."
The expensive "sheep's milk" cheese in a Manhattan market was really made from cow's milk. And a jar of "Sturgeon caviar" was, in fact, Mississippi paddlefish.Some honey makers dilute their honey with sugar beets or corn syrup, their competitors say, but still market it as 100 percent pure at a premium price.And last year, a Fairfax man was convicted of selling 10 million pounds of cheap, frozen catfish fillets from Vietnam as much more expensive grouper, red snapper and flounder. The fish was bought by national chain retailers, wholesalers and food service companies, and ended up on dinner plates across the country."Food fraud" has been documented in fruit juice, olive oil, spices, vinegar, wine, spirits and maple syrup, and appears to pose a significant problem in the seafood industry.
In response, Ezra Klein asks an interesting question: "Were many of these customers worse off because of the fraud, either in the pleasure they derived from the products or other benefits (health, for instance) they were expecting?"Some of the customers certainly were worse off. If you're trying to buy a product that is more expensive because it's more sustainable (organic tomatoes, for example) or healthier for you (fresh tomatoes, for example) and you're duped into buying a lower-quality substitute instead, that's a problem for your health and for the health of world.But when it comes to foods like caviar and certain fish, it is often scarcity and status, not health considerations, that drive demand. And if the supposed gourmand can't tell the difference, that just exposes the fact that the value of the genuine article is more a social construct than an intrinsic quality of the food itself. In cases where the substitute is actually the better choice-imagine someone unwittingly buying farmed trout instead of wild trout-the fraud is good from an ecological perspective. We'd like it if Kenyan medicine men were duped into using fake rhino tusk, right?Clearly there are good reasons to enforce accuracy in labeling to the greatest extent possible. We don't want the FDA tricking people. But it's hard for me to get too upset about consumers with epicurean pretensions and ecologically insensitive buying habits overpaying for a more sustainable food because they can't tell the difference. Maybe fish markets should let you buy red snapper only if you can identify it in a blind taste test.Image: Watermelon "Caviar" at Element, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from kaplanbr's photostream