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The Wildest Food Scandals of 2016

From vomit-inducing food bars to a pizza shop-sex ring conspiracy theory, it’s been quite a year

Signage for Comet Ping Pong in Washington DC.
Comet Ping Pong, the epicenter of “Pizzagate.”
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Each year, Eater tracks the most salacious scandals that rocked the dining public and restaurant world. This year was a doozy. Here's a review of all the stories that raised eyebrows in 2016:

Soylent Bars Made People Violently Ill

Are the plant-based foodstuffs made by Soylent the future of food? If so, the company needs to ensure its customers won’t get violently ill upon consumption. In October, some people who had eaten Soylent’s food bars began reporting symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and extreme stomach pain. The company initially wrote off the reports as individual allergies or sensitivities to ingredients in the bars. But, it quickly changed course. A few days after the reports surfaced, Soylent advised customers to discard the bars in question. It then halted sales of its powder product after more customers fell ill. The company determined an algae in the recipes was to blame, and it decided to reformulate its mixtures.

A Soylent food bar. Soylent/Official

Premier Cru Fine Wines Turns Out to Be a Ponzi Scheme

Premier Cru taught oenophiles it’s a bad idea to pay big bucks for a wine before you have the bottle in hand. The Berkeley, Calif.-based dealer regularly made sales on a “pre-arrival” basis, which had customers paying steep prices with the promise that their purchases would be delivered within a reasonable timeframe. But, many customers faced lengthy waits for their bottles, or they never received them at all. Premier Cru filed for bankruptcy in January, citing more than $70 million in debt liabilities. The FBI investigated the business as a possible Ponzi scheme, and owner John Fox pled guilty to wire fraud, admitting he scammed customers out of $45 million. Fox was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison.

What’s Really in Your Olive Oil?

Wine isn’t the only delicacy shrouded in fraud. Consumers are being duped by fake olive oils too. The United States and Italian governments both began cracking down on impure and counterfeit oils in 2016. In June, one Italian company was hit with roughly $608,000 in fines because it misleadingly labeled its products as “extra virgin.”

Industry Titans Ripping off the Little Guys?

A few big names were accused of stealing concepts in 2016. Burger King unveiled an outrageous macaroni and cheese-Cheetos mashup in June, but a YouTube chef named Kyle Marcoux claims the chain stole the idea from one of his videos. Fallen burrito giant Chipotle rolled out Tasty Made, a new burger concept, in October. Did Chipotle simply repackage the name and design from a smaller chain? Boston-based Tasty Burger thinks it did. And in November, billionaire Kimball Musk, brother of Tesla founder Elon, filed a lawsuit against celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. Puck recently opened a restaurant called The Kitchen, but Musk says its a ripoff of his own restaurant with the same name.

Hampton Creek Allegedly Inflates Its Just Mayo Sales

Hampton Creek is the company behind Just Mayo, an eggless mayonnaise that has garnered quite a bit of buzz in recent years. Some of that buzz may have come from falsely inflated sales numbers. Some anonymous former employees claim that in 2014, Hampton Creek instructed its workers to buy up Just Mayo in bulk and call stores to request the product, posing as customers. This was allegedly happening during a round of funding. Founder Josh Tetrick says the buy-back was part of a quality control program, and that the company did not attempt to mislead investors.

A jar of Hampton Creek's Just Mayo. Official

Big Soda Funded Bogus Health Studies

As America tries to fight its obesity problem, many consumers and policy makers have targeted sugary soft drinks as a leading cause of this country’s health woes. In an attempt to combat that negative perception, some of the biggest soda companies are trying to change the science. In January, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo were caught funding a study that claimed their products were just as healthy as water. Even worse, the companies sponsored 96 American health organizations from 2011 to 2015, including the American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, Childhood Obesity and Public Health Conference, and National Dental Association.

Yelp Gets a Bad Review From an Employee, Employee Gets Fired

Publishing an open letter about how terrible your employer is will likely get you fired, as one Yelp employee discovered. Talia Jane declared she and her coworkers were living paycheck-to-paycheck and couldn’t afford to purchase groceries. Jane received a lot of backlash for being an entitled millennial (she was living in the ultra-expensive Bay Area, after all), but Yelp eventually decided to raise its employees’ pay.

Farm to Table Is a Lie

The Tampa Bay Times took a lot of shine of off farm-to-table with a damning report in April. The newspaper found that many restaurants are lying about their supposed local, seasonal, responsibly grown, responsibly raised ingredients. It seems producers can’t keep up with the demand for such ingredients, and chefs and restaurateurs don’t have the gumption to admit they’re serving foods sourced from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Food Writers Fooled by McDonald’s

One night in February, a group of food writers gathered in Los Angeles to eat what they assumed would be a fancy meal from chef Neal Fraser. But, Fraser wasn’t serving fancy ingredients — he sourced his dishes from McDonald’s. The chef called it a controversial way to “keep the conversation going” about food sources. Critics say Fraser, who was paid an undisclosed sum by Mickey D’s, simply played a role in a marketing stunt for the chain.

#Pizzagate

If there’s one story that perfectly sums up the dour absurdity of 2016, it’s “Pizzagate.” A conspiracy theory that caught fire on Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter, Pizzagate is a favorite of President-elect Donald Trump’s supporters. It’s centered on the idea that former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta is running a child-prostitution ring, and Comet Ping Pong, a Washington DC pizzeria, is the headquarters. Believers have pointed to leaked Clinton campaign emails between Podesta and Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis as proof of the conspiracy, claiming the two were writing in code to discuss the supposed sex ring. The outrageous theory has spread to pizzerias in New York City and Austin. It became all too real earlier this month when a man who claimed to be investigating the theory walked into Comet Ping Pong with a rifle and fired at least one shot.

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All Year in Eater Coverage [E]


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