FOOD SCANDAL: WHY YOU SHOULD BE WARY OF FAKE BEER, WINE & SPIRITS
For the past year, the food world has been awash in scandals. Investigations from the likes of 60 Minutes, Inside Edition, 20/20, Bloomberg and the Tampa Bay Times have exposed fraud with extra virgin olive oil, sushi, parmesan cheese, Kobe beef, a huge swath of so-called “farm to table" restaurants, all sorts of seafood, and much more. We’ve seen lamb and lobster dishes sold without containing their namesake ingredients, shrimp laden with banned antibiotics, and dozens of factories in China devoted to producing counterfeits of popular name brand condiments (see a list of recent scandals in the media here).
But the latest hot button food deception issue isn’t something you eat, it’s something you drink.
In the past few days, several news outlets have reported on a class action lawsuit filed against the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, claiming it duped consumers into buying “craft beer” that was far from artisan. The product in question is four styles of beer under the Trouble Brewing label, sold in cans with a distinctly craft beer look that describe the products as brewed by Trouble Brewing in upstate New York. Just as many bottles of olive oil read “bottled in Italy,” which is literally true even when their contents are not from Italy, “brewed by” seems to be very different from “brewed at,” since there is no Trouble Brewing brewery. The brand is contract produced for Walmart at the large industrial Genessee plant.
The lawsuit basically suggests that there is nothing “craft” about the beer and that consumers were duped into overpaying for what they thought was a better product. Food and beverage website Thrillist.com reprinted a section of the actual suit (read the entire Thrillist piece here) that read, “Through a fraudulent, unlawful, deceptive, and unfair course of conduct, [Walmart] manufactured, marketed, and/or sold its 'Cat's Away IPA,' 'After Party Pale Ale,' 'Round Midnight Belgian White,' and 'Red Flag Amber' Craft Beers to the residents of Ohio and 44 other states with the false representation that the Craft Beer is, in fact, a 'craft beer' when, in actuality, nothing about [Walmart] is 'small, traditional and independent' to qualify it as an American craft brewer per the Brewer's Association.”
And therein may lie the rub in this particular case. The most widely repeated definition of “craft beer” is not a legal definition by regulators but rather one created by the trade association for small breweries, which common sense suggests has a vested interest in shaping the definition to benefit its stakeholders. For example, one determining factor is that the producer be independently owned, a requirement which does not, at least to me, logically limit the potential “craftiness” or quality of the product produced.
But food and beverage deceptions do not have to violate state or federal regulations to deceive consumers. In my recent New York Times bestseller, Real Food Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It, I explore the broad range of food substitutions, imitations and deceptions plaguing American consumers in stores and restaurants in all sorts of categories, from sushi to wine to staples like coffee and juice. I also elaborate on many of the most widespread restaurant scams, including the myth of Kobe beef. Real Kobe beef comes from a very rare and particular breed of cattle raised under specific rules in Kobe, Japan, but its producers were unable to obtain trademark protection in this country, so virtually any beef product can legally be called Kobe beef here, and especially on restaurant menus, this is often the case. There are only ten eateries in the entire country that import and serve the real thing from Japan, yet the term appears on hundreds, maybe thousands, of menus nationwide, from fictionalized Kobe sliders, burgers and even hot dogs to steaks with three-figure price tags at high-end eateries. But while it may be legal to call something Kobe beef that is not, it becomes another problem when restaurants deceive the consumer into believing that the Kobe they claim to serve is the actual delicacy from Japan, and lawyers have had success using class action suits to obtain settlements from larger restaurant groups marketing what I call FauxBe beef to customers.
Likewise, in my book I cover several adult beverage topics, including the most egregious one from my perspective, champagne, the world’s most famous wine. Whenever I speak at a book signing or on the radio and inform my audience that it is perfectly legal to make wine in this country and label it champagne, folks in the audience tell me surely I must be wrong, real champagne can only come from France, I must mean something that reads sparkling wine or methode champenoise. I don’t, I mean “champagne,” a term which is largely unprotected in this country and thus legally produced from California to upstate New York. These products are widely sold to a group of consumers who seem absolutely convinced that the word champagne guarantees quality (in this case it does not) and French origin (ditto). Like all wine, the label must list the country of origin, but consumers’ absolute conviction that champagne is synonymous with made in France may stop many from taking this precautionary step. After all, you don’t need to flip over the Rolex you are buying at a legit jewelry store to see if it says “Made in Switzerland,” as all real Rolexes are.
Last year I wrote an article for an airline magazine on the world’s best bottomless champagne brunches, and despite the fact that each Sunday hundreds of restaurants across this country advertise these, I struggled to locate three in the entire nation that actually served champagne.
Despite France being our oldest ally, and champagne the first geographically indicated product to be protected at the widespread international level, the United States is one of just six nations on earth that have repeatedly refused to recognize France’s exclusivity in making a wine it invented and is named for the French region in which it was created. It is illegal to produce or sell “champagne” not from Champagne in the entire world save these half dozen nations, and we are in in very special company: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Argentina. It is not just a matter of where it is made but also how, and the extremely elaborate quality driven rules governing every step of champagne production, from soil to planting and trimming of vines to ageing ensure that it has arguably the highest quality control of any foodstuff on earth, and as a result, while some are better than others, there is literally no such thing as bad (real) champagne.
Champagne is not the only geographically based wine that has specific legal and quality meaning in the rest of the world yet dupes consumers here at home. American wineries produce versions of Burgundy, Chianti, Port, Sherry and several other wines made under strict quality control rules in their almost exclusive place of origin, often with little or no resemblance to the real versions. Buy real red Burgundy and you always get a wine made from 100% pinot noir grapes from vineyards of certified high quality. Buy domestic “Burgundy” and you have literally no idea what you are getting - the included grapes, often a mix of several less desirable varieties, don’t have to be listed, nor does where they came from. The many topnotch producers of excellent pinot noir in this country don’t call their wines Burgundy, a name that when used on non-French wines is generally reserved for cheap oversized jugs and boxes.
The issue is not limited to beer and wine. We also have an entire category of alcoholic “mocktails,” drinks named and packaged to closely resemble leading brands of vodka and other hard liquors, but which do not actually contain hard liquor - they are flavored malt beverages, essentially clear and colored variations of beer masquerading as mixed drinks. Many consumers I know think they are actually buying something like an individual pre-mixed vodka tonic. They are not.
In its story on the Walmart lawsuit, the Washington Post noted that several lawsuits against Tito’s Handmade Vodka, complaining the product was not handmade as advertised, were dismissed in 2015. The Post added that similar lawsuits brought against Maker’s Mark were also dismissed. The Post did find one class action suit that successfully forced a substantial settlement (refunds of $3-$6 a bottle over a 9-year period). The suit claimed that Templeton Rye Whiskey was deceptively marketed as a small batch spirit made in Iowa using a Prohibition-era recipe when it was made at a large commercial distillery in Indiana from a recipe that included flavorings agents.
It’s often hard in this day and age to buy or order real versions of the foods and drinks we want and to avoid the fakes, but it’s worth the effort, as the real thing almost inevitably tastes better and is often better for you. Buy Japanese Kobe beef, French champagne or Italian parmesan cheese and you will be thrilled, not disappointed, while most imitations will leave you unimpressed. Some fake foods go further than leaving a bad taste in your mouth and can actually make you sick. That’s why I wrote my book, filled with specific tips and knowledge for safer shopping and safer eating out.