Food has evolved from mere sustenance to a focal point in today’s American pop culture. It’s a source of inspiration, a creative outlet, and an instrument for social bonding. It’s transformed into a prominent art form, consistently bringing competition, conversation, and respect to those immersing themselves in the culinary world.
Food has permeated the entertainment industry, as dozens of cooking shows and celebrity chefs try to satisfy our hunger for dramatic, yet educational television. Shows such as Iron Chef, Chopped, and MasterChef introduce both casual viewers and aspiring chefs alike to exotic ingredients, creative techniques, and fast-paced excitement, all while serving a generous dose of drama and entertainment. These shows, among others, glamorize cooking and heighten viewers’ interests in the art, because not only do they portray cooking as enjoyable, but they also show that anyone is capable of cooking, regardless of age, gender, occupation, or background. They allow us to witness both seasoned professionals and average Americans morph simple ingredients into elegant dishes. Anyone that’s seen Pixar’s Ratatouille can remember Gusteau’s cookbook Anyone Can Cook. Frankly, it’s true that anyone can cook, because it doesn’t require access to many resources. I believe that that’s why cooking has become so popular–anyone can do it.
And this growing interest in food has easily transitioned into the realm of social media. Social networking mediums allow us to appreciate and document our own individual culinary journeys and share our most delicious meals and recipes with friends and followers. The hashtag #foodporn on Instragram has nearly 24 million results, and the website Pinterest is exploding with appetizing pictures of food and recipes for home cooks to try. Food has almost become synonymous with social media, and this phenomenon has brought an obsession with food to the masses.
With both the emergence of social media and the increased popularity in cooking, our culture has developed a seemingly more intimate relationship with food.
Our intimacy, our connection with our food, is an illusion. It’s a false belief fueled by the deception in the industry. We’re so intent on furthering this relationship with our food, but more often than not, we’re being tricked. Because our focus is the final product that sits in front of us on a plate, we’re blind to the deceit that terrorizes the food industry. Yes, cooking shows and social media have brought us closer to both the process and product of the art of cooking, and we have a newfound appreciation for the gustatory and visual aspects of food, but we can’t be truly intimate with our food if we don’t know where what we eat comes from. So how can we be intimate and feel connected with our food if we’re unaware of what we’re consuming? Even worse, this wrong perception of being closer to our food can be harmful to consumers and the environment, because it fosters an unquestioning, accepting attitude from consumers.
When we go to a restaurant and order cod fish and chips, how often do we look at the food in front of us and wonder whether or not the fish is actually cod? Unless you’re deeply rooted in the food industry or have an incredibly discerning palate, I’m guessing you’d happily dig in once the plate reaches your table. But it’s this doubtless acceptance from customers, including myself, that has made mislabeling fish in the American seafood industry commonplace and profitable for businesses.
Let’s take a look at this from a business standpoint. Ethics aside, if you can easily and successfully pass off a cheaper product for a more expensive one, it’s a financial no-brainer. You’re making more money. Plus, customers usually can’t even tell that they’re being lied to. So because it’s difficult to accurately identify seafood without seeing the whole animal, American restaurants and markets can mislabel their seafood in order to increase their profits.
This deception is a nationwide epidemic, and its effects can be seen in overfishing. Tuna, aka “chicken of the sea,” is one of the most popular fish in America, but it’s also one of the biggest victims of mislabeling. In a study conducted from 2010 to 2012, ocean protection group Oceana collected over 1,000 samples of fish from 21 different states and found that “59% of the fish labeled ‘tuna’ sold at restaurants and grocery stores in the US [was] not tuna” (Oceana). Here are some of the other major findings of the study:
- “In Chicago, Austin, New York, and Washington DC, every single sushi restaurant sampled sold mislabeled tuna.”
- “84% of fish samples labeled ‘white tuna’ were actually escolar, a fish that can cause prolonged, uncontrollable, oily anal leakage.”
The population of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna has plummeted 74% over the past 50 years, with most of the damage being done in the past decade. The population dropped 82% in the western Atlantic (Washington Post). Since tuna is being drastically overfished, “seafood purveyors need a fish that’s delicious, cheap, sustainable, and low in mercury” (The Kitchn). In other words, they need a substitute. Here’s where escolar fits in. It’s a fish known to be buttery, delicious, cheap, and it could also be dyed to look like bluefin tuna. What’s the catch? It’s dangerous. As a result of the “uncontrollable, oily anal leakage” caused by eating escolar, Japan and Italy have banned its importation and sale (The Kitchn). Escolar is also legally allowed to be passed off as “butterfish,” which can confuse consumers because real butterfish is supposedly delicious, harmless to eat, and not to mention a totally different species.
The latent danger of substituting escolar for tuna is that it gives customers a false impression of the tuna population. In our restaurants and markets, “tuna” is never out of season and rarely out of stock. Its presence and constant availability is almost magical, and its relatively affordable prices certainly do not represent its supply–the prices may even encourage tuna’s consumption over a pricier, yet more available option such as sweet shrimp. As Christopher Mims of The Atlantic puts in, “if you’ve ever wondered why the sushi in the display case is so affordable, given the dire state of the world’s tuna supply, well, now you know” (The Atlantic).
The scary thing is, consumers are unaware of issues such as this. Even though America imports almost all of its seafood, the FDA doesn’t check most of it. There’s no traceability. For the most part, we can’t say for certain where our seafood comes from. So next time, before you Instagram your plate of sushi or garnish that plate of scallops, keep in mind that what you see is not always what you get.
As David Foster Wallace puts it in “This is Water,” a true education is one that makes you aware. And in order to be truly intimate with our food, we need to be aware of what goes into the final product that we pay so much attention to. Awareness is crucial, as it’s the barrier that separates our beliefs from the truths in the food world.
This eye-opening research has made me start a culinary journey of my own. As a freshman at Santa Clara University that’s tired and skeptical of dorm food, I decided to go on a quest searching for the best eateries in the Bay Area that are easy on a college student’s budget. Even if some restaurants have good Yelp reviews, I’d like to see for myself if they live up to the hype. My classmate and I are documenting our explorations on our blog “Eat Hard Play Hard.” We post restaurant reviews, recipes, articles, and more, so check us out by clicking the link below!
Harden, Blaine. “Japan Says It Won’t Comply with Bluefin Tuna Ban.” Washington Post. N.p., 5 Mar. 2010. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
Flynn, Dan. “Oceana Study: ‘Fish Fraud’ Ripping off American Consumers.” Food Safety News. N.p., 8 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/08/americans-are-getting-ripped-off-by-fish-fraud-oceana-study-finds/#.UoFO1GRxte5
Johnson, Kirk. “Survey Finds That Fish Are Often Not What Label Says.” New York Times 21 Feb. 2013: n. pag. Print.
Jolly, David. “Pacific Tuna Stocks Have Plummeted, Scientists Warn.” New York Times. N.p., 10 Jan. 2013. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
Martin, Roy E., ed. The Seafood Industry. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
“Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide.” Oceana. N.p., 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
Plumer, Brad. “Just How Badly Are We Overfishing the Oceans.” Washington Post. N.p., 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
“Seafood Fraud: Overview.” Oceana. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
“Summary of the Oceana Report on Seafood Mislabeling in the US.” Fish Wise. N.p., 6 Mar. 2013. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
“Use Caution When Eating Escolar.” The Kitchn. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.