Traditionally, food fraud scandals have involved supermarket staples like domestic Parmesan cut with high levels of cellulose, extra-virgin olive oil that failed to meet the extra-virgin standard, honey diluted with corn syrup, or dried spices "extended" with chopped weeds.
Food fraud is a sophisticated $50 billion annual industry, and reading a menu and the waiter is as much art as science.
But lately the media focus has turned to restaurant menus. Inside Edition reported that Red Lobster’s namesake bisque and Nathan’s Famous’ lobster salad both missed a crucial ingredient — lobster. A scathing Tampa Bay Times report bashed self-proclaimed "farm-to-table" restaurants for lying about almost everything down to the names of local farmer purveyors, and serving farmed Asian pollock as Alaskan wild-caught, drug-addled feedlot cattle as grass-fed, and, worst of all for those following Jewish or Muslim dietary customs, swapping cheaper pork for veal.
Food fraud is a sophisticated $50 billion annual industry, according to Michigan State University's Food Fraud Initiative, and while many of the nation's scams occur in grocery store aisles and retail shops, what has surprised many readers of my new book Real Food/Fake Food the most is the Wild West of restaurant menus. There’s a perception that spending more or visiting "name" chefs is an insurance policy against counterfeits, but that’s not really true. Food deceptions are institutionalized in the food-service industry: Some occur further up the supply chain, and many are in fact perfectly legal, even if morally outrageous.
Reading the menu and the waiter is as much art as science, so here are the top three fake food flags — keep an eye out especially for red snapper, Kobe, or the use of truffle oil — that should impact your evaluation of all claims on a restaurant’s menu.
1. Where’s the beef? USDA Prime, Kobe, and "Dry-Aged"
It is important to understand that menus and restaurant food claims are largely unregulated, exempt from Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture rules for retail. Label a "Choice" steak "USDA Prime" in the supermarket and you’ll likely get fined; label it "USDA Prime" on a menu and you just significantly enhanced your margin. Diners take it for granted that 28-day dry-aged beef was actually aged, that heirloom breed pork is not the standard Sysco version, and that organic produce is organic. They should not. If investigations like the Tampa Bay Times' have shown one thing, it’s that the more "value added" tasty-sounding adjectives adorn a menu, the more likely there are lies. This is especially true in the highest-priced sections of most restaurant menus, meat and seafood.
The single biggest menu red flag, regardless of the price level of the establishment, is the use of the words "Kobe beef." When Inside Edition confronted New York’s Old Homestead steakhouse about serving $350 Kobe steak that was not from Kobe, the spokesman basically dismissed their finding as semantics. The supply of the real thing is so scarce that individual restaurants are licensed by Kobe’s marketing council to buy it, and you can literally count the restaurants in this country serving the real thing on your fingers. The nine such places in the country proudly display golden steer plaques, usually at the front counter. The other 99+ percent of Kobe claims are lies, including all for burgers, sliders, hot dogs, and anything cheap — the real thing sells for well over$20 an ounce.
Other beef claims are much harder to evaluate. But as a rule of thumb, the vast majority of beef produced in this country is not of high quality — it is industrial feedlot beef, reared on drugs and silage, a fermented corn stew, as well as animal by-products. Yet there are a lot of restaurants serving steak, many of them upscale. Less than two percent of the beef produced in the country grades USDA Prime (the USDA’s numbers report they declare four percent of American beef "Prime," but that only reflects the percentage of beef that’s actually submitted to be graded; lower-quality beef often isn’t graded at all). Only a small percentage of our beef is truly grass fed and even less is also raised drug- and animal-byproduct free. There are just a handful of established steakhouses like Keens in New York and Bern’s in Tampa that dry-age their own meat in house. And only a tiny handful of wholesalers like New York’s DeBragga distribute Japanese beef.
In all these cases, the question you should be asking your waiter is "where does your meat come from?" If they can unflinchingly name a specialty distributor, a growers’ cooperative like Niman Ranch, or a particular farm such as Colorado’s 7X ranch, it’s a good sign. If they can’t answer this question specifically and without hesitation, it’s a terrible sign — all these meats are highly specialized and need to be carefully sourced.
2. Red snapper = red flags
Seafood is even worse. In the largest nationwide study conducted by Oceana in 2013, 38 percent of all restaurants — and a staggering 74 percent of all sushi eateries — mislabeled the species of fish served. While businesses inevitably blamed distributors and wholesalers, it was no accident — the substitute was always less expensive than the one claimed on the menu.
How to avoid that upcharge? Rockefeller University's Dr. Mark Stoeckle, involved in DNA species testing for the Barcode of Life project, gave me this tip: "Just don’t ever order red snapper." The poster child for fraud, the real thing is served up less than six percent of the time. At New York sushi temple Sushi Nakazawa, often rated the Big Apple’s best, the fraud risk is so high they simply they won’t serve red snapper — ever. Eat this fish out every night for a week and odds are you still won’t have tasted it, and just seeing it on a menu at anything less than one of the country’s top seafood restaurants makes me immediately suspect of everything else.
But it’s not just red snapper: cod, halibut, flounder, and grouper are commonly faked, often by Cambodian ponga, a catfish mass-produced in Asian fish farms under suspect conditions that have included banned drugs. In sushi restaurants, white tuna, widely used in rolls, did almost as poorly as red snapper, and the primary substitute is escolar, known in the trade as the "Ex-Lax fish" due to the digestive distress it can cause — it used to be banned on our shores. The reason seafood is so widely and easily faked is because most diners are so disconnected from it: If you don’t fish, you have no idea what most fish look like. In any case, in restaurants it is almost always entirely prepared, already cut into filets — which with white fishes, are largely indistinguishable, especially under a mound of sauce or in cioppino.
The poster child for fish fraud, real red snapper is served only six percent of the time.
The best strategy for getting real fish is to eat at places that display it whole, order whole fish options, or stick to cheaper fishes that are not worth counterfeiting. At Japanese restaurants, nigiri and sashimi are a lot harder to swap than rolls, especially heavily processed fast-food versions like chopped up spicy tuna. One other big warning sign is organic claims — while the USDA does have fairly reasonable organic standards for meat and produce, there are none for seafood.
But even whole, it is hard to differentiate farmed from wild-caught, one of the favorite exaggerated menu claims, especially for shrimp and salmon. Again, as with beef, ask very specifically where it came from — almost no wild-caught shrimp is imported, and 75 percent of ours comes from the Gulf of Mexico, meaning Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, or Louisiana. Almost all real wild-caught salmon comes from Alaska — Atlantic salmon is "commercially extinct," meaning its numbers in the wild are too low to be fished, distributed, and sold. Countries whose farmed salmon has performed very poorly in test of dangerous dioxins and PCBs include Norway and Scotland, but many eateries will happily brag about these fine-sounding sources. Top-tier seafood specialists such as Milos and Masa work directly with fishermen and have product flown in from places like Hawaii daily, but most restaurants do not. Most get frozen boxes of farmed Asian pollock from the same supplier as their canola oil.
Your best bet is to ask pointed questions and look for hesitation. Good restaurant sourcing for seafood is complicated, and if they do it well, they will know where their fish came from. It’s that simple.
3. Truffles and reading a menu as a whole
High price is no guarantee of quality, but low price for lavish claims is very suspect. In general, if you are not eating at a really standout spot, a menu full of extravagant embellishments like heritage breed, water buffalo mozzarella, and foraged anything probably does not make financial sense. On one signature dish it’s plausible, but on every menu item, this raises an eyebrow. Besides aggressive adjectives, Kobe beef, organic seafood, and red snapper, the other huge red flag is truffled anything. Real truffles, especially the prized black and white varieties from Alba, are one of the world’s most prized — and rare — foods. Shaved in front of you over risotto, these are heaven for many diners. But truffle oil has nothing whatsoever to do with truffles. It is a made up substance, manufactured just like perfume, entirely fake and chemical.
It’s not like before some chemist invented the inaccurately named truffle oil your corner bistro was shaving fresh truffles over fries, mashed potatoes, and popcorn. Like priced too-good-to-be-true "Kobe" sliders, these recent "truffled" comfort food fads exist only because of the cheap bottled solution. The presence of such dishes on the menu suggests a willingness to take low quality shortcuts and play fast and loose with food descriptions. This calls everything else on the menu into doubt, and given the recent evidence, that’s saying a lot.