Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fake Food

The Washington Post advises us that various food products are being marketed as something other than what they really are. post fda story And they point out that trade groups and concerned individuals want the FDA to do something about it. According to it's Wikipedia entry, "The FDA regulates more than $1 trillion worth of consumer goods, about 25% of consumer expenditures in the United States. This includes $466 billion in food sales, $275 billion in drugs, $60 billion in cosmetics and $18 billion in vitamin supplements. Much of the expenditures is for goods imported into the United States; the FDA is responsible for monitoring a third of all imports.[4]

The FDA's federal budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2008 (October 2007 through September 2008) totaled $2.1 billion, a $105.8 million increase from what it received for fiscal year 2007.[5] In February 2008, the FDA announced that the Bush Administration's FY 2009 budget request for the agency was just under $2.4 billion: $1.77 billion in budget authority (federal funding) and $628 million in user fees. The requested budget authority was an increase of $50.7 million more than the FY 2008 funding - about a three percent increase. In June 2008, Congress gave the agency an emergency appropriation of $150 million for FY 2008 and another $150 million for FY 2009."

A recent article in the New Yorker, slippery business, tells the sordid story of bogus olive oil, a subject of critical importance to Mediterranean foodies everywhere. Catfish being marketed as the more valuable grouper, cow's milk cheese masquerading as it's ovine cousin, cheap fish eggs pretending to be caviar, these frauds can't be very bad for the ultimate consumer because THEY CAN'T TELL THE DIFFERENCE. It requires DNA analysis and isotope absorption testing to determine if a salmon actually spent it's life dodging seals off the coast of Siberia or was raised on a watery farm in Scotland. The point is that though the chef and his customer have been defrauded, they are unaware of the fact. The entity being damaged is, of course, the one that markets the genuine article. And what is the extent of that damage? Perhaps if there is an excess of purportedly wild salmon, for instance, the faux salmon will drive down the price of the real fish. Or maybe the domestic salmon will just economically piggy-back on its wild counterpart, bringing a higher price than it would ordinarily warrant.

But is the traffic in fraudulent olive oil, fish and wine a matter that requires the intervention of the FDA and the federal government? Isn't it possible for the olive oil industry, who, after all, has the most concern in this area, to establish their own testing and sanctioning program to guarantee that the ingredients of the salad dressing we make come from where they say they do? Couldn't they slap a little sticker on each bottle or tin authenticating the contents? Do we really need to spend dump trucks full of public funds to investigate the origins of our olive oil? And even if the FDA jumps all over bogus foods, that certainly doesn't mean that the business will become strictly legitimate. It just means that it will be more regulated (and the products more expensive) and enforcement activity will occur after the fact. You'll still be eating low-rent olive oil. And Swedes that don't use it will be paying for its regulation.

It's natural that anyone perturbed by the presence of these bogus foods in the marketplace would seek government intervention. That's the way people think today. But wouldn't it make more sense for those with the most to lose, the manufacturers and purveyors of the real article, to guarantee their own products? And shouldn't consumers be aware enough of their purchasing to take a pass on things that they have no reason to believe are for real?

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