Frank Bruni / Our fishy, fraudulent food supply

Let's face it: Most of us know next to nothing about what we eat

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There are many lessons a person might rightly or wrongly divine from the horse meat scare in Europe, including this: You should perhaps think twice before buying meatballs from a furniture purveyor, unless those meatballs are humongous and nonperishable, and double as ottomans.

I'm referring of course to the Swedish retail giant Ikea, whose repertory extends bafflingly from couches to canapes, and to its recent discovery that a food produced for sale in its European stores contained something in addition to the beef and pork meant to be there. This secret ingredient was the chromosomal kin of Seabiscuit, a rendered member of My Friend Flicka's extended family, and it represented not just a culinary fraud but a cultural affront, at least to people who prefer not to eat what they can saddle. "War Horse," after all, explores the equine potential for military heroism, not for pot roast.

But to focus on Ikea would be wrong, because traces of unadvertised, unauthorized horse meat were also found last month in beef sold by other European merchants, notably in Ireland and Britain. And to focus on horse meat would be wrong as well. At the same time that European Union officials were trying to figure out precisely how furtively horsey the continent's food supply had become, German officials announced an investigation into whether millions of eggs from as many as 150 German and 36 Dutch poultry farms had been sold (at higher prices) as organic, a designation connoting more humane treatment of the hens that lay them, when they were anything but.

There was concurrent fishiness in America. The conservation group Oceana announced the results of a two-year study of more than 1,200 samples of seafood from about 675 stores and restaurants in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and the survey determined that one-third had been peddled as something other than what they were. The tuna? Not necessarily tuna. The red snapper? Not so red, and maybe not any of the dozens of species of snapper, either. And this bait-and-switch was less common at run-of-the-mill grocery stores than at the rarefied perches where a customer's expectations run highest and his or her wallet is most quickly drained: sushi counters.

But should we really be surprised by any of this? Where there's money, there's mischief, and food isn't exempt. "The fish and horse meat are connected by one fundamental thing, which is pure greed," said Eric Schlosser, the author of "Fast Food Nation" and one of the makers of the documentary "Food, Inc."

And where there's mass production, there are more opportunities for things to go wrong. When I discussed the horse meat scare with my New York Times colleague Michael Moss, the author of a new book on the snack industry titled "Salt Sugar Fat," he observed that the global sourcing and sheer complexity of many food operations left companies with less control.

"That's a huge issue going forward," said Mr. Moss, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for reporting on contaminated meat. "A hamburger isn't a hunk of one cow or one shoulder," he said, noting that there are many principled exceptions. "In most places, it's an amalgam of scraps from all over the world." In fact Ikea's meatballs were made by another Swedish firm, which in turn got some of its meat from Polish slaughterhouses.

We've been down this road, or versions of it, many times before. There was the outrage last year over so-called pink slime in ground beef.

And on a less squirm-inducing but arguably more fraudulent front, there are perennial media exposes about advertised calorie counts that bear scant relation to actual calorie counts, a phenomenon so extensively chronicled and widely suspected that a deli just blocks from me mounts an adverbial defense against customer skepticism. One of the breakfast items on its menu is a "truly fat-free muffin."

Just last month, a short documentary on The Times' website made clear that government efforts to get more merchants to post the number of calories in foods fail to account for one overarching problem: the inaccuracy of those postings. The documentary's makers subjected five items from retailers in New York City to independent assessments, and all but one had more calories than the number promised. The worst culprit was the item masquerading as the most healthful: a vegan, kosher sandwich made with tofu. It had more than double the 228 calories on the label.

That lie isn't likely to cause you grave harm, at least not directly and not right away. (With enough unintended weight gain over enough time, there could indeed be trouble.) Likewise, there are experts who say that the concern with pink slime, a mush of leftover scraps less repellently known as "lean, finely textured beef," is one of aesthetics and proper disclosure more than public health.

And apart from worries that certain veterinary drugs might enter the food chain through unauthorized, uninspected horse meat, that meat isn't a hazard. It's generally leaner than beef and eaten on purpose by many people in many countries. One omnivore's horror is another's hors d'oeuvre.

Context is everything. At the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, the trailblazing and lavishly celebrated chef Rene Redzepi has been known to serve live ants. When I ate there nearly three years ago, he served me live shrimp. I managed to get down only one of them, and only after persuading myself that doing so was an act of honesty and proper responsibility: Instead of having someone else kill my dinner out of view, I was administering the last rites myself, with my teeth. Wriggle, wriggle, chomp, chomp.

Our food rituals often lack rhyme and reason, but we want at least to know that we're getting what we bargained for. We want assent.

We're spooked by the horse meat story, disturbed by the fish tale and riveted by other instances of false food advertising because they remind us of a truth we try hard to forget. Every time we eat something that we haven't grown and reaped and cooked ourselves -- which means, for most of us, every time we eat -- we're taking a leap of faith: that it was protected from contamination; that it was inspected properly; that the cook didn't mix in something objectionable; that the waiter didn't drop it on the floor. We're in a position of both extraordinary vulnerability and extreme trust.

And while we can ratchet up our vigilance, that goes only so far. We can be local. We can be seasonal. We can be sustainable and organic and buy our pork somewhere other than where we buy our throw pillows. But we can never be entirely sure.

opinion_commentary

Frank Bruni is a columnist for the New York Times.


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