Jacy Rittmer

Food Transparency – More Than a Label

Organic, Non-GMO, Kosher, Rainforest Alliance, Halal, Fair Trade… Bird Friendly?  While these labels are nice to see on products and make us feel good when we buy them, they can get extremely confusing. We could do away with all of these certifications, and empower consumers to better navigate the food in their shopping carts in favor of just one thing; transparency.

What are Certifications Anyway?

There are over 464 certifications in 199 countries for food products according to the Ecolabel Index, ranging from Carbon-Neutral to Ocean Safe to Smithsonian-Certified Bird Friendly coffee. Even the certification consumers are most familiar with, Certified Organic, has 4 different levels of certification. Not to mention, a brand new “Regenerative Organic Certification” has entered the arena, with a pledge to go above and beyond regular organic certification to encompass soil health, fair worker treatment, and animal welfare. Sounds good, right?

The purpose of all these certifications is to inform shoppers about where their food is coming from and how it’s prepared. Certifications enable consumers to make more informed and responsible decisions about where their money goes and what they put into their bodies. However, with so many different certifications floating around, it’s becoming harder and harder for consumers to stay informed about their food.

Let’s Start with Breakfast

Take a stroll down the egg aisle, for example. Picking up a carton of eggs for breakfast doesn’t sound like a difficult task. But when you pick up a carton of eggs, you also pick up a carton emblazoned with a handful of certifications and claims, many of which are geared to make you think the eggs inside are the most incredible, earth-saving eggs you will ever eat.

 

But even if the eggs you pick up (and pay top dollar for) are cage-free, organic, and non-GMO, chances are high that the hens who laid them had a single foot of living space in an over-crowded warehouse somewhere – the minimum requirements for making those claims. If you take another step up the certification ladder and buy eggs that are free range, it could mean they had a whole two square feet of space with a tiny “pop-hole” to look out of. And, with the exception of pasture-raised eggs, cage-free eggs aren’t shown to have any better nutrient content than those without additional certifications anyway.

So, Do the Certifications Mean Anything?

Many shoppers use certifications to ensure the food they are eating, eggs or otherwise, is high-quality, healthy, and safe. But with the CDC estimating nearly 1 in 6 Americans get sick and 3,000 die from food borne diseases every year, it doesn’t seem like certifications are the solution to ensuring food is healthy or safe.

The current system isn’t exactly working for businesses either. A single food recall can cost a business $10 million on average. And they’re increasing at an alarming rate:

“Food products recalled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration skyrocketed 92.7 percent since 2012, and recalled pounds regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which largely oversees meat production, jumped 83.4 percent in the same period.” – Stericycle Recall

In addition to recalls, food fraud, defined as “fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production”, costs the food industry $10-15 billion a year. And oftentimes, small producers don’t have the time or money to get their products certified, though they meet qualifications for it.

With certifications, consumers and businesses put their trust in independent organizations and government agencies to ensure that their food is safe. But plenty slips through the cracks. Regulations change and certifications stop meaning what consumers think. Businesses lie about how they treat their animals to charge higher prices on certified products. The USDA has revokedonly a dozen organic certifications from American companies in the last 10 years.

 

Why is Food Traceability the Solution?

Food traceability is no fad – it’s going to be around for a long time. With recent technological advances, big-name companies are throwing resources into developing reliable ways to trace food through the supply chain. In 2016 IBM announced that they were partnering with 10 food giants including Wal-Mart, Unilever, Nestle, and Dole to use blockchain technology to create a transparent supply chain, and they’re currently testing this out on mangosand pork. For businesses, food traceability means less concerns about safety recalls and higher efficiency for their business.

Traceability isn’t just good for big business – small food producers can benefit, too. By using traceability to increase transparency for consumers purchasing their products, producers can build brand loyalty, connect more closely with their customers, and get better information on how their products are performing.

Food traceability can ease the minds of consumers, too. Shoppers picking up a product at the market and wondering “is this product fresh?” or “are these eggs really what I think they are?” could simply scan a code on the packaging and see the path the product took – from the farm to their table.

Transparency and Seeing the Future

The U.S. government agrees that transparency is the way to go, too – the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, one of the biggest sweeping acts of reform to hit U.S. food safety laws in years, will require food businesses to take accountability to prevent food safety issues.

Most food products will be required to be accompanied by Food Safety and Food Defense plans, detailing (among other things) how food safety concerns should be addressed for the product. It also includes traceability recommendations for businesses and requires the FDA to conduct pilot tests on food traceability for new regulations down the line. Food businesses have to be compliant with the new laws between 2018-2022, with more to come.

In the very near future, the government and consumers will demand transparency. While creating transparency and traceability in the food supply chain won’t fix every problem the food industry has, it will tackle a lot of them – from rapidly dropping consumer trust to the growing frequency and cost of food recalls and food fraud.

When companies are forced to be transparent, consumers will have the autonomy to vote with their wallets, using the power of capitalism to shake out the bad apples (and eggs) from the good.

 

Please follow and like us:

Olive Oil – Extra Virgin? Not Quite.

Ah, olive oil. It’s healthy, it’s delicious – just opening a bottle puts our cooking ability on par with that of a professional chef. Some people take shots of it every morning. Two women who lived to be over 120 years old both said drinking it was the key to a long life (along with wine and chocolate – now that’s some health advice I’m happy to take!). But if you’ve purchased olive oil from a grocery store, the chances are very high that you aren’t buying what you think you are. And certainly not the good stuff that could help you live longer.

In fact, consumers in the U.S. are so familiar with rancid, low-quality olive oil that they will pick it out of line during a taste test because it’s what they’re used to. Instead of a fresh, grassy, fragrant, buttery, or even peppery smell with hints of fruitiness, we are used to oils that are musty, greasy, and thin.

If you’re not sure you know what good olive oil tastes like, visit a specialty olive oil store. They often offer tastings of their products, and can show you what to look for. We’ll go into more depth later about what to look for in olive oils, since even some of these stores lack good, fresh options.

On a personal note, if you take away one thing from this article, I hope it’s to learn what olive oil is supposed to taste like and how to pick out a good bottle. Do it for me. I personally have shed a tear over a roommate using my fancy olive oil to season a pan, and I’m not ashamed… Okay, maybe I am a little. But I digress – please go find a specialty olive oil store near you and go taste some. Your life will never be the same.

Let’s start with some basics about olive oil.

Olives are picked and crushed into a paste by stones, or more commonly by steel blades. The paste is then stirred to release droplets of olive oil before being spun around at high speeds in a centrifuge to remove the oil and water from the olives. Finally, water is removed until just the oil remains.

If the end oil is unrefined, such as extra virgin and virgin oils, the process ends there and the oil is bottled and shipped. Only the best olives are used for unrefined oils. If the olives are of lesser quality, more processing is required. This oil is further refined using chemicals and heat to neutralize the taste of the oils, as lesser quality olives produce a more bitter and less desirable taste. These oils are often labeled as “Pure Olive Oil” or simply “olive oil.”

So if Pure Oil and Olive Oil mean it’s bad stuff, what about the good stuff? That’s from Italy, right?

It’s a common misconception that only good olive oil comes from Italy. The reality is that Italy is just the biggest importer and exporter of it. Both good and bad olive oils can come from Italy, and there’s also amazing oils that come from countries like Spain, Greece, Tunisia, and (my personal favorite) Australia. Italy just happens to bottle and ship the vast majority of it, which feeds the misconception.

The best and highest quality olive oils are labeled “extra virgin,” which means that they contain pure, cold-pressed olive oils instead of a blend of lower quality, processed oils. That’s why the taste of extra virgin olive oil is stronger and more pronounced than regular olive oil. It’s also the only label that requires any sort of inspection, and must pass lab analysis and testing conducted by the International Olive Council in Madrid.

Neat, so just look for “extra virgin” olive oil and I’m good to go?

Nope, sorry! Nothing can ever be simple when it comes to food. Unfortunately, seeing extra virgin on the label isn’t a guarantee of quality. According to a study in 2010, 69% of imported extra virgin olive oils that were tested failed to meet USDA standards. Often, companies pass off lower quality olive oil as extra virgin – and there’s plenty of room in the supply chain for mixups.

Remember how Italy imports, bottles, and exports most of the olive oil? In November of 2015, seven of Italy’s best-known olive oil companies (does the name Bertolli ring a bell?) were investigated for passing off low quality oils from other countries as extra virgin Italian olive oil. This multi-million dollar systemic fraud case was busted by an investigation codenamed (no joke) Operation “Mamma Mia.” There are even ties to mafia involvement within the Italian olive oil industry. The price tag for extra virgin olive oil rings up at around 30-40% more than the cost of regular oil, which is more than enough for fraudsters to want a taste.

Okay, so sometimes olive oil isn’t totally pure and extra virgin. Kinda crummy, but not exactly unsafe. Why should I care?

In the best cases, “fake” olive oil is labeled incorrectly as extra virgin, or has been mixed with oils that have been sitting around from the previous years’ harvest (or longer). This is totally legal, but completely defeats the main purpose of buying olive oil – that it’s healthy. When mixed with old and often rancid oil, by the time the oil reaches the consumer it’s often lost a good chunk of its health benefits.

In the worst cases, the oil has been illegally diluted (or “cut”) with other, cheaper oils. One way to do this is to add chemically refined, low-quality olive oils. Other popular diluters are sunflower, soybean, and canola oils.  Which, if you have food allergies, is VERY bad news.

That sounds not great. So how do I make sure I’m buying good olive oil?

If you can, hit up a specialty olive oil store – they’re popping up more frequently in the U.S. and often pride themselves on letting you test their products. If it tastes good, it’s probably good.

Don’t trust labels. (This seems to be a recurring theme – check out our guides to eggs and coffee certifications and why transparency could be the solution.)

Don’t fall for terms like “natural,” “pure,” “premium,” “virgin,”or “light.” They are all marketing terms for oil that is heavily processed and lacking in the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil – though they are fine for baking or other kitchen needs where flavor doesn’t matter. And as I’m sure you learned above, even “made in Italy” doesn’t mean much. Even the bottled by dates aren’t good to go by – oil can sit in a tank for a year before it’s bottled.

So if olive oil labels aren’t any good, what do I look for?
Check for a stamp of approval.

There’s a council called the California Olive Oil Council, or COOC, that verifies, tests, and analyzes olive oils to meet high standards. If you see their seal, it means that oil has met their criteria – here’s a list of the brands they’ve approved.

Additionally, the USDA has a voluntary quality monitoring program for olive oils, though only two companies participate. If you see the USDA seal, it means the oil meets these standards.

You can also check for the European Union’s Protected of Designated Origin or Italy’s DOP.

Brush up on your geography.

If you have nothing to go off of besides the country of origin, choose Chile or Australia. These two countries scored the highest average qualities on the U.S. International Trade Commission report on conditions of major olive oil imports in the U.S.

Additionally, Australia has the best testing systems and the highest standards of all olive-oil producing countries. Both Chile and Australia have never been found to mix oils from old harvests.

Know your seasons.

Buy olive oils from regions where olives are in season. This means don’t buy from the Northern Hemisphere in the fall and winter, and don’t buy from places like Chile, Australia, or South Africa during the spring and summer.

Go dark.

Olive oil’s worst enemies are light, heat, and oxygen – they cause oil to deteriorate rapidly. Stay away from oils that are kept in clear bottles or near windows. Good olive oil is often kept in a dark tinted bottle or in a can to prevent degradation of quality. If you can’t see the color, that’s fine! High quality olive oils can come in all colors, from buttery yellow to dark green to nearly clear.

Awesome! Now I have a great bottle of oil – what do I do with it?

Store it in a dark place that’s temperature-stable and not too hot. An unopened bottle can be kept in a cool, dark place for a year or two, but after it’s open make sure to use it within a few months before oxidation causes it to go rancid.

But don’t worry too much – once you have a fragrant, grassy, buttery olive oil at your cooking disposal, it probably won’t make it more than a few months before it’s all gone!

 

Please follow and like us:

Shopping cart

Subtotal
Shipping and discount codes are added at checkout.
Checkout