Deception within the U.S. food system is still taking place a century after Upton Sinclair’s expose on the unhealthy practices taking place in the meat packing industry. Cheaper, diluted, imposter goods are being sold to unsuspecting buyers nationally and internationally. Meanwhile, the demand for sustainable, organic food is at an all-time high with consumers spending nearly $28 billion a year on organic food and drinks. Unscrupulous sellers are capitalizing on this trend and consumers overall lack of knowledge in organic and sustainable food practices.
The United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), a leading nonprofit scientific research group, has tracked nearly 2,000 fraudulent foodstuffs since it established its Food Fraud Database in 2012. Top food fraud targets include a number of everyday goods: milk, olive oil, honey, juices, coffee, seafood, and spices. The consequences range from a good old fashioned ripping-off to health concerns for those concerned about additives, chemicals, processing, or food allergies. Ground coffee, the USP found, for example, is occasionally mixed with finely ground parchment paper and some herbs are mixed with lawn grass.
Equally vexing is the “local washing” of foods, analogous to green washing, meaning foods are labeled as “local” when in fact those foods may be shipped in from other states, regardless of the distance. It is difficult to halt as there is no standard definition as to what local is.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) labels food 100% organic if it meets the following criterion: the meat or produce is not genetically modified, does not include antibiotics and growth hormones, and is grown with synthetic and sewage free fertilizer. For farmers and producers to earn this distinction, it takes, on average of three to four years.
Donnie Baugh, the general manager of organically certified Hayton Farms Berries, a vendor at the Capitol Hill Farmers Market, defines “local” as food that is grown in the same state it is being sold. For him, local typically implies a small family farm.
The best defense to protect against food fraud is relying on people you know and trust. “A big part of the local food movement is to meet your farmer and/or producer and build relationships. If you’re only one or two handshakes away from your farmer, that’s the best way to verify where your food comes from,” says Chris Iberle, the Food Hub Program Manager for Seattle Tilth. As you get to know farmers and producers, Iberle suggests asking questions. What does local mean to them? What percentage of their goods is actually local? What’s the size of their farm operation?
Farmers markets, on the whole, are an excellent source of vetted goods. The Seattle Farmers Market Association (SFMA), which oversees Capitol Hill’s farmers market on Broadway, requires growers, producers, farmers, and other vendors to go through a rigorous application process. Jamie Hurt with SFMA says, “People cannot show up and sell randomly.” For extra measure, the organization makes a point to develop relationships with farmers, and routinely conducts informal site visits to farms.
For those unable to get their shopping done on the weekend at a local farmer’s market, technology makes getting local, organically certified food easy. Direct Local Food, a company serving the Seattle area and nationally, and Seattle-based tech company Farmster, bridge the system by connecting consumers with local farmers via an online platform. Consumers can search for meats, dairy, cheeses, olive oils, milk, and other goods. They are able to learn more about the farm and make direct contact with the producer. Direct Local Food requires each of its farmers and producers to sign an agreement stating they will be honest with potential buyers about the goods they sell in their online marketplace.
Consumers can check in with their local grocery store, too, and simply ask about their buying practices. Diana Chapman, the Director of Sustainability for PCC Natural Markets, which has a popular location on Madison on Capitol Hill, says, “All of our produce distributors [Organically Grown Company, Pacific Coast Fruit, and Peterson Fruit] keep the organic certificates of the growers they work with on file. We maintain the organic certificates of local growers we work with directly. Simply put, we have proof of organic certification for every organic fruit and vegetable we sell.”
When it comes to shopping in grocery stores, experts like Bon Appetit’s Belle Cushing suggest consumers should pay attention to ingredients and price. Words like “aroma” and “essence” should raise red flags, as should added sugars and cleverly disguised ingredients (vanillin for vanilla, for example). Whenever possible, buy whole, unprocessed foods. Saffron is one of the most expensive spices on the market. The USP listed 109 phony saffron substitutes including corn silk, chalk, and strands of plastic thread. If the price seems too good to be true, for an item normally expensive, it might be.
All of these efforts to bring consumers closer, physically and technologically, illustrate ways to access information about our food system more accurately. Both Iberle and Baugh encourage consumers to ask questions and learn more about where their food comes from. Their experience suggests that cutting the distance between producer and consumer is the best way for individuals to prevent food fraud from hitting their family’s stomachs and their checkbooks. The assertion is that deception can be overcome with knowledge.