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Consumers beware! From red snapper to pomegranate juice, common food products at grocery stores and restaurants are often intentionally mislabeled by actors up and down the supply chain. We explore how food fraud happens, what foods are most susceptible and new methods that suppliers are developing to reduce misleading and fraudulent labeling.
- John Rorapaugh director of sustainability and sales, ProFish Ltd.
- Jeffrey Moore senior scientific liason, Food Chemicals Codex, United States Pharmacopeia.
MR. PAUL BROWNWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown sitting in for Kojo today from NPR News. And you can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. Hey, do you think you just ate a red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico? What you were actually eating was probably tilapia, farm raised in Florida. But the label on the fish was fraudulent. American's rely on food labels to make decisions at the grocery store but millions of us unknowingly become victims of food fraud.
MR. PAUL BROWNIt could be mislabeled seafood, pomegranate juice that doesn't contain a single bit of fruit or as they're uncovering in Europe right now, horsemeat in a package labeled as beef. Food fraud means that at some point in the supply chain someone altered, diluted or incorrectly labeled the product you paid for. It rips off the consumer by giving consumers cheaper ingredients. And in the worse cases it can leave thousands of people sick.
MR. PAUL BROWNFood scientists have developed methods to identify tainted ingredients. And today food suppliers and chefs are using new technology to prevent fraud in the supply chain. Here to discuss these issues, Jeffrey Moore. He's a food scientist for the United States Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit that develops public standards for medicines, dietary supplements and food ingredients. Also with us, John Rorapaugh. He's the director of sustainability and sales for ProFish, which is one of Washington's largest fish suppliers. And welcome to you both.
MR. JOHN RORAPAUGHIt's great to be here.
BROWNGlad to have you with us. Should people trust what appears on food labels? Let's just cut right to it.
RORAPAUGHI think you should in the seafood world. When it comes to our side of things, we're considered a middleman. And it's our responsibility to know where the fish are coming from, labeling it properly on our invoices and presenting it to the chefs, who in turn present it to the public.
BROWNWell, we've had some fairly high profile cases, John Rorapaugh, of fish not being what it's claimed to be, as we just stated in the introduction. Where do you come in on that? How do you square what you're telling me with some of the cases that have been out there?
RORAPAUGHWell, I think you have to be a leader in the industry to make the difference. On our invoices, we actually include the (word?) genus which there's 140 different type of grouper. There's only -- a red grouper has its own genus. So by including that on the invoice we're telling that chef and the end consumer that is exactly what they're buying. I think the confusion comes on menus and right before the public -- you know, when it's presented to the public. Not in many cases is it coming from the fisherman or from the middleman -- from the wholesaler.
BROWNWell, Jeffrey, most consumers trust the ingredients they see on labels. We go to the market, you buy food, you try to trust what you're getting. But in a case of food fraud that's not the best rule of thumb necessarily. So what do you classify as food fraud? What is it?
MR. JEFFREY MOOREYeah, that's a great question. We think about it in a very general sense as being the introduction of a food into the marketplace for financial gain with the intention of deceiving the consumer. And I think from our perspective, you know, there's some good evidence to suggest that fraud does actually happen in the marketplace. Folks don't really know the true extent to which it's actually happening in the marketplace. You see numbers thrown out there.
MR. JEFFREY MOOREYou know, I've heard recently, you know, around 5 percent is an estimate but ultimately folks really don't know the true extent of fraud in the marketplace. And it can take different forms. I like to point this out that we look at it at U.S. Pharmacopeia from the perspective of economic adulteration, which comes back to things like dilution of things with water or replacement of perhaps an olive oil with a different oil. Seafood is another good example. Sometimes it's simply just concealing a low quality product by adding something that's not labeled to make it appear better than it actually is.
BROWNIf you're listening now, have any of these things concerned you? Do you trust what appears on food labels? How do you make sure you get the food product you're paying for? Have you ever discovered a case of food fraud personally? Do you think it's wrong to buy the lowest costing food? How do you deal with rising food prices? We'd love to hear your views on any of these questions. 1-800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850. How do we keep our food safe? How do we know that we're getting what we think we are?
BROWNYou can also email us at email@example.com, and you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Paul Brown in for Kojo Nnamdi. And Jeffry Moore, how widespread it the phenomenon of food that isn't what you think it is?
MOOREYeah. I think we don't know the true extent, but what we've tried to do actually over the last few years is collect information in the public domain and simply database this notion of just collecting what's out there to try to understand what are the potential frauds that could happen in products, and what we've found is that it's really quite surprising. Almost any food product that you can think of, if you dig back far enough in history, you'll find examples of food being frauded.
MOORESome of the recent ones that we've picked out from our analysis would be things like pomegranate juice.
MOOREIt's picked up so media interest as well that folks may not be aware of are never had thought of that. But it turns out if you look at the historical aspect of it, there's always been issues with fraud around fruit juices, apple juice in the late 1970s and '80s that happened. So some of it comes back to the actual nature of food. Some of them or more susceptible to fraud than others. It's based on how complex they are, the supply chains that they go through and the QA test methods that are in place.
BROWNWe should note that a lawsuit has just been filed against Anheuser Busch, the biggest brewer in the world, people claiming that the beer is watered, Budweiser, Michelob, and some other popular brands. Anheuser Busch says this is completely without merit, that they abide by every food labeling law in every market in which they operate, on every brand of beer. So we'll see how that plays out in court, if it does. But a class action lawsuit. We were talking that on the news this morning.
BROWNLet's go the phones because this is a hot topic nowadays especially with the case of horse meat having been found in products labeled as beef in Europe, and IKEA, the big Swedish retailer has pulled its famed Swedish meatballs from stores in 24 countries because of traces of horse meet that were found in some of the samples. So that's the sort of landscape in which we're operating now. Robert in Bethesda, Md. You are on the air, and you have a question, I understand, about fish labeling, possibly for John Rorapaugh.
ROBERTYeah, John. You know, I appreciate that you said you would put the genus and the species name on your invoice, and I think that's an extremely truth in labeling good practice of truth in labeling. I just wanted to point out I worked on a program on the west coast that was called Fish Wise, and it was sort of sustainable fishery advocates, and it was sort of a stoplight mechanism for consumers to identify sustainability as well as actually species and labeling on fish products, and I was just wondering of ProFish was aware of that program, and, you know, if you all are involved with that.
RORAPAUGHSpecifically with Fish Wise, I am. I have a relationship with them, and I know the program. We have our internal that we're trying to build now, it's called Fish Print, and it actually -- we answer the sustainable questions, we have links to all the NGOs, whether it's Monterey Bay or NOAA Fish Watch, or EDFC Food Safety. There's links to each fishery that we sell to -- or that we sell, and we've taken it a step further. The industry does that as a whole know. We actually are getting DNA testing for our fish to make sure that what we're buying, you know, a whole fish comes in and you can identify whether it's a grouper or a snapper.
RORAPAUGHBut if filets come into us, and we buy things that are pre-filleted, that's when you know, games can be played. Look in Florida, a couple years ago there was pangasius, which is a Vietnamese catfish replaced on menus for grouper filet in Florida. There was 18 out of 20 restaurants and it was a big -- people went to jail, and it was -- it was a complete fraud. Our system we're trying to build to take the gray area out of seafood.
BROWNIt's not perfect yet, I understand. You've had some problems with your own.
RORAPAUGHWe have. We have. We, you know, as a wholesaler, you want to represent your chefs or your customer as close to the source as possible. So you buy from fishermen. We were involved in a case that some fishermen were fishing illegally.
RORAPAUGHWe thought we did our due diligence with the sourcing but, you know, this was four or five years ago when there wasn't the technology we have not where we can actually track the fish. With this Fish Print, we actually put a dot on the map where that fish was caught, how it was caught, a picture of the fisherman, a picture of the vessel. So we're taking it as far as you can go with it, and our next step is, you mentioned the horse meat. The company that found that, the DNA testing, they're actually working with us to identify the species we sell.
BROWNJohn from Hyattsville, Md., and by the way, Robert, thank you for your call. Very interesting question, and it seems as though ProFish and some other fish suppliers are trying to tackle this problem. John from Hyattsville, Md., you're on the air.
JOHNWell, good afternoon, gentlemen. I'm baffled and frustrated trying to find the country of origin on juice labeling, especially since so much of the boxed juice goes right into the mouths of little ones. What are the requirements?
BROWNJeffrey Moore, what can you tell us about that?
MOOREThat's actually a good question. I'm not familiar with the juice labeling requirements for country of origin, so I'm not going to be able to answer that specifically. I do know that some countries list on their labels where it comes from, so that's certainly helpful for consumers, and I think something to consider though is that, you know, what does that actually mean, and the scenario, I think of ongoing research is to try to understand how the origin of things. Sometimes it's not necessarily just the country of origin, but maybe it's just a particular part of that country that has a problem.
MOOREWe're trying to quantitatively understand how origin influences fraud opportunity or safety risks in a food supply chain because what we don't want to do is say, you know, everything from this country is bad, or there's a problem with it. That's generalizing, and in many cases just is not true. It's not the best way to approach the problem. But I think there is a place in the future that companies can do a better job of helping consumers understand where their food comes from so the consumer can make an informed decision on knowledge that they have or can get -- can be educated on to understand how that influences risk.
BROWNDo you think that requires more legislation, or are you not willing to go there in the conversation yet?
MOOREYeah. No. I'm not willing to go there in the conversation. We're looking at it more from the perspective of trying to actually understand the nature of what's happening, and we as an organization develop testing standards to help actually pick this stuff up, used mostly by industry so they can protect their supply chains.
BROWNCan you give us some idea, and I know this, in a way, is a very broad and simple, if not simplistic question, but how vast is the food supply system in this country, and how up to the need is our regulatory ability, and the ability to actually check and sample foods, and make sure that when you to the market you're getting what you think you're getting.
BROWNIt just seems like the size of the food supply system in the U.S. is almost incomprehensibly large. How do you keep track of all this stuff?
MOOREYeah. No. I think it's a very daunting question, and it's not just the size and the scope of the food supply here but elsewhere. Because if we have a -- we live in a globalized society, and ultimately, you know, things can come from all over the world, you know, coming back to the origin of foods to feed into these things. And I think what's important to emphasizes from a, you know, thinking about it from a regulatory perspective is that regulators have resources to do this. I actually think they're doing a good job.
MOOREFSMA, the Food Safety and Modernization Act, I think is a great improvement to how we're thinking about food safety, but ultimately, food safety in the U.S. is a partnership between industry and regulators. You can't have just one of those working. They have to work together to ensure the safety of our food supply.
BROWNLet's get Greg on the phone here from Washington D.C. Greg, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," you're on the air.
GREGGreat. Thank you very much. Great topic. One that's close to my heart. I had a question, and I guess I'll put it as a comment as well. I had health issues for quite a long time, and farmed salmon was something that I needed to avoid.
GREGAnd I've learned that, you know, we sanctify the term Atlantic Salmon, which is by any stretch of the imagine trying to dupe into believing it comes from the Atlantic Ocean when in fact it doesn't. Can somebody comment about that?
BROWNJohn Rorapaugh, what do you have to say about that?
RORAPAUGHThat is widely fraudulent. When you're in a supermarket and you're asking for wild salmon, there should be no substitution for Atlantic farm-raised. The industry is definitely catch up with itself and through the technology where you can be assured when you go into Whole Foods and it says that it's wild, it should be. Oceana's efforts that they've done, and the 1400 samples that they took, and obviously this is a program, that's a daunting problem.
BROWNI mean, you know, this report that we're talking about here by Oceana found that a third of seafood in the U.S. was mislabeled at the retail level. It says here in the Washington D.C. area the group found that every sample of snapper that it looked at was incorrectly labeled. So how do we know, John Rorapaugh, where the mislabeling is happening, and how do we catch up with it. I mean, coming into contact with it at the retail level seems a bit late.
RORAPAUGHIt does. It does. And they say to buy whole fish. Obviously if you're buying at a fish monger you want to buy whole fish. That's your easiest way to identify. Most people that don't have that luxury, you know.
RORAPAUGHYou know, you go in and gave a piece of Sushi, if it's priced too inexpensively -- Snapper's a very expensive fish. If you're going and getting a piece of sushi for two dollars, it's probably not Snapper. I think these reports are so essential for our industry, you know, a rising tide raises all boats. So I feel that these reports, bringing this to attention, it's going to be -- it's going to drive companies like us to embrace the technology, and to really end this doubt because everybody knows that seafood's great for your, health reasons, you know, heart.
RORAPAUGHSociety, they say eat twice a week for your heart, and so we want to get back to people's perception that it's pristine, it's a great protein, plus the farm-raised products that we have in country are the best in the world. You know, this is the first year that 51 percent of seafood consumed in the United States was farm raised. That's the first time that's ever happened. So -- and it's to track the farm raised, you know. The wild catch is still predicated to the hunt whereas the farm raised, you can get the information, you can get the nutritional information, you can get the feed that they feed the fish, if they're recirculating aquaculture systems.
RORAPAUGHSo that's the information that we're building as wholesalers, and I think we as a company are leading the industry in this, but I think everyone's going to follow to be honest with you.
BROWNFar from a perfect world, and I know that there's also some controversy about the benefits of farm-raised fish as compared to wild-caught fish, but today we don't have a lot of time to get into that conversation. But thanks very much for your phone call, Greg. We appreciate hearing from you. Let's go to Amanda in McLean, Va. Amanda you're on the air on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for calling in.
AMANDAHi, guys. Like Greg, this is something that's also very important to me, but my question is about GMOs. You know, it's interesting to me that like we -- we might know that our food has high fructose corn syrup in it, it's right there on the label, but what it doesn't tell us is that that corn was made from a genetically modified organism and what that does to our bodies, and why our country doesn't regulate this like, you know, the European countries do and make the food companies label the genetically modified organisms that are in our food. So what do you guys think about that?
BROWNHow about you, Jeffrey Moore?
MOOREYeah. I mean, I think I would come at it from the scientific perspective that there actually isn't a lot of good science out there to back up that there's any negative health consequence of a genetically modified organism that's gone through the whole process -- the rigorous process that we have for GMOs. And I think, you know, in the U.S. anyways, that's why we don't have a labeling requirement to do that.
MOOREI separate that, you know, from the broader issue of food fraud simply because in the U.S. we don't have that requirement to do it. So it's a little bit different outside of the area that I actually work in. So that's my thought.
BROWNBut I think what Amanda is addressing here is that whether you believe it or not, you have the right to know what you're getting.
BROWNIs that not correct, Amanda? You're saying, you know...
AMANDAYeah. Yeah. That's what I'm saying. Because you don't really know what that is. You might know it's high fructose corn syrup, you might know it's canola oil, but you don't -- that was not made in a pure way, because it was -- comes from science, it doesn't come from food. It's not whole and real food if that makes sense.
BROWNSo it seems as though there's still some ground to cover in your view to just having honest labeling...
BROWN...what everyone's belief about the product may be. And in your case, you're concerned about genetically modified foods. You don't want to consume them, and you say that you don't have a way of making sure you know whether you're getting that or not.
AMANDARight. Exactly. Exactly.
MOOREYeah. And I think it's a fair point. I mean, consumers want to know what they're buying, how it was produced.
MOOREI think from an industry perspective I can offer a little bit that part of the issue, and taking GMOs out of it, is how much information do consumers -- can they actually handle. I mean, if you knew everything about how your food was produced you'd be overwhelmed. It couldn't fit on a product box, a product label. So there's this line of how much information is too information to put on a product.
BROWNWe have just a couple of minutes to go here. We could talk about this all for hours. I do want to get to Kevin in Arlington, Va. Kevin, are you with us?
KEVINYes. Thank you taking my call.
BROWNI think you may bring an interesting perspective in here since you are on the frontlines serving food to people at restaurants. Tell us about your experience. We haven't heard from anyone in your position.
KEVINOh, yes. Well, you know, I spent ten years or so in the restaurant industry, and, you know, I found that, you know, I think that a lot of the fraudulent labeling of fish or misrepresentation of what's on the menu is directly accountable to the chef and the ownership of the restaurants. And, you know, you can kind of -- I feel like you can rest more assured that if you go to a restaurant where you know they care about the food that they're giving you, you're going to get what you ordered.
BROWNWell, what if you're a restaurant owner and you're obtaining, say, fish from a supplier, and, you know, John has been talking about the challenges that ProFish faces among other suppliers, or you're thinking that you're getting organic vegetables from a far that is supplying you, and you might or might not be. I mean, you may care about food if you're a chef, or a restaurateur, but it doesn't mean that you know for sure that you're getting what you're paying for.
RORAPAUGHYeah. Well, you know, I think that's about really getting in touch with your producer and establishing a relationship where you know who they are and what they're doing, and their philosophies of business, and that's also, I think, another reason why buying local from -- locally direct from farmers and fishermen is becoming really popular because, you know, you actually have a face behind the, you know, who harvested the product.
BROWNBriefly -- and thanks very much for your call, Kevin, briefly, Jeffrey Moore and John Rorapaugh, as we finish up here, the big push, what should the big push be for everyday food consumers, those of us who may not be able to buy from a farm, or who don't have direct access to supply, what do we do when we go to the market to try to be sure that we're getting what we think we're getting when we buy our food?
RORAPAUGHWell, I think you go to markets that are sending the message of sustainability one, in the seafood world, you want to make sure your fish are not overfished. That was kind of the first genesis eight or ten years ago, moving into traceability.
BROWNAnd you said if you see an impossible bargain, it probably is.
RORAPAUGHIt probably is. Same with the restaurant end. Talk to the chefs. They love coming out and telling their stories. We do an education program where we take 15 chefs out twice a month to local fisheries, oyster farms, out and do catch methods. We'll go out on the boat and do eight different catch methods. So they see what these guys go through, and they actually get a personal relationship. We do this with Steve (word?) is a friend of the show here with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
BROWNSo get to know your own personal food suppliers.
RORAPAUGHYeah. That's right.
BROWNJeffrey Moore, what do you suggest briefly here?
MOOREYeah. I mean, I think there's actually some similarities in a broad, general sense when you think about, you know, buying something like spices. If you're buying a whole spice in a marketplace, you have a better idea of actually what you're buying if you can see those identifying features as opposed to buying something ground up. The comment about, you know, if it's too cheap, you know, questioning the quality of that product, I think there's something to be said.
MOOREI mean, it can be, you know, thinking about it like buying a Prada purse in the market for five dollars, it tells you that something is perhaps wrong. The other thing I would encourage folks to do is to have a dialogue with food manufacturers. If you're buying products, you know, ask these questions to the manufacturers. Let them know you're interested is made, whether or not they're using real genuine food ingredients.
BROWNRaise awareness of the concern.
BROWNRaise awareness of the concern. Well, thank you both. Jeffrey Moore, food scientist for the United States Pharmacopeia, and John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability in sales at ProFish. We've been happy to have you on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown sitting in for Kojo. The show produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein with help from Stephannie Stokes.
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