There’s a tradition of investigative food reporting—stretching back at least to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 exposé of meatpacking, The Jungle—that claims you don’t know what you had for dinner last night. Consider some examples from this worthy new contribution to the genre: A Clemson University study in 2004 found that seventy-seven percent of fish labeled “red snapper”—wasn’t. In Lancashire, England, every take-out pizza purchased by government inspectors in a 2014 consumer crackdown contained fake cheese made with vegetable oil, whey protein, and seasonings, and ten out of fifteen pies with ham toppings tested positive for turkey DNA. Recent headlines have spotlighted baby formula bulked up with melamine (a chemical used in the production of plastics), cheap grain oil passed off as expensive “extravirgin olive oil,” and supermarket beef-burgers containing nearly thirty percent horse meat.
There’s plenty of opportunity and ample motivation for today’s food suppliers to pull a fast one, note the authors, University of Bristol biochemist Richard Evershed and British science writer Nicola Temple. Much of the food we buy is altered to the point of unrecognizability—fish and meats are turned into uniform filets, spices are ground into flakes and powders—which puts consumers at a disadvantage. Suppliers are often tempted to allow contaminants to enter the production line and sometimes to pass off cheaper look-alike ingredients as the real thing. For high-priced specialty foods, substitution with false ingredients can reap enormous profits.
Take, for instance, the Tropea red onion, a regional delicacy only grown in Calabria, southern Italy. Tropea onions are highly prized by gourmet cooks—and priced much higher than the ordinary red onions they resemble. In 2008, according to the authors, only about 18,000 metric tons of Tropeas were harvested, but 90,000 tons were sold worldwide. Four out of five onions on the market must have been impostors—a state of affairs that doubtless would bring tears to the eyes of many an honest chef.
Fortunately, chemistry has come to the rescue: For the Tropea onion, the telltale marker is dysprosium, a rare earth element, which is found in unusual abundance in the regional soil, and which is taken up selectively by the onion. Using sensitive mass spectrometers, food researchers have been able to authenticate the twenty percent of dysprosium-rich, true-grown onions in grocers’ bins, preserving the regional cachet and adding even more to the value of onions labeled “Cipolla Rossa di Tropea Calabria.”
Other precise analytic methods are emerging in the food industry. DNA analysis, ever more inexpensive these days, offers ways to identify species in a package of supermarket meat. The University of Florida has recently announced a hand-held instrument called Grouper Check, which uses DNA technology to tell you if that fish on your plate is, indeed, a grouper.
At $2,000 per unit, Grouper Check and devices like it are not likely to become everyday kitchen utensils, but in the hands of vigilant government and private watchdogs using similar methods, and a public informed by books like this one, we may be more able to trust that we really ate what we thought we ate for dinner.