EcoMeme: It’s What’s Inside That Counts (Especially With Food & Drink)

champagne flutes

Would champagne by any other name taste as sweet? Or toasty, citrusy, maybe nutty with notes of baked honey, caramel and coffee? Maybe. But the world likes to think not. “Champagne” (like Bordeaux, and Camembert cheese) is protected. In most countries it is illegal to label anything but wines hailing from the official winemaking region or “appellation” of Champagne as champagne.

The governing bodies in charge of protecting the wine include: the INAO institute, which administers the appéllation d’origine contrôlée (A.O.C.) law, the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (C.I.V.C.) which makes rules about viticulture, cultivation of grapes and production of champagne, along with plain old customs officials.

But they can’t stop recessionista party hosts, or fraudulent bar managers from pouring imitation bubbly to reap savings or profits this New Year’s Eve.

This week, the blogosphere has been abuzz about food and drink fraud. And not just because it’s time to pop the cork. Twelfth grade science students at Trinity School in Manhattan, Brenda Tan and Matt Cost, DNA tested everything from tilapia to tuna. Their informal study found 11 of 66 food products around their homes were not made of what the labels claimed.

Two examples: a package claiming “yellow catfish” was actually comprised of the invasive species, walking catfish; and a piece of sheep’s milk cheese was in fact from cow’s milk.

DNA testing could be used by food safety inspectors and police to thwart food fraud. But it’s not just about the money.

Fraudulent labeling also covers up the continued slaughter of endangered species, both plants and animals, that have protected status. And mislabeled foods can cause allergic reactions, even death to people or pets.

Read up on recent food labeling scandals, and use the resources below to understand what’s going into your favorite snack, meal or on the menu.

Basic Reading:

The U.S. Food And Drug Administration’s “backgrounder” on food labeling and nutrition for consumers and industry professionals

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service site, including a database of plants and animals on the endangered species list

“Whether you want to know where your beef’s been for philosophical or health reasons, this web-based tool [from The Green Guide] will give you some insight. For instance, if the package bears a stamp reading “˜USDA Organic,’ you know the cow was fed only 100% organic grass, grain and corn… [or] if your steak comes from a cow that may have been given growth hormones, or your burger contains the remnants of antibiotics given to an ill animal.”- Lifehacker

“For far too long, some of the world’s biggest food manufacturers have designed their labels either to exaggerate the amount of healthy ingredients, or to imply that the food has magical, drug-like qualities that could prevent or treat various health problems,” said Center for Science in the Public Interest legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade. – A Dec. 2009 advocates’ report on false, if legal, food labeling

“Following several cork-popping years of record-breaking shipments (and some might say price gouging) to the U.S., the Champagne Bureau is reporting a slump. It’s hangover time. US sales of imported bubbly have gone flat in 2009 dropping 41.2% from January to August… There are currently more than 1 billion bottles all dressed up with nowhere to go, sitting in warehouses all over the Champagne region of France.” – A Walletpop guide to affordable, authentic champagne

Further Resources:

The official home page of the eco-gastronomic non-profit Slow Food Interational

The official home page of the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency including many news items on food labeling and nutrition

The official home page of the California Certified Organic Farmers

The New Yorker’s Dec. 2009 profile of Whole Foods founder and food activist, John Mackey

A Fooducate blog post criticizing Nestle and the F.D.A.

This is the 9th installment of EcoMeme, a column featuring eco news, tech and business highlights by Lora Kolodny.

Image: nlmAdestiny