Tales From the International Food Police
Posted Friday, July 12, 2013 8:30 AM
Warning! Your brown-bagged lunch may be illegal. “Sounds Cheesy” you might think, but the Swiss or mozzarella cheese on your sandwich may be considered contraband if the international food police are successful. The same goes for many meats, salads, teas and hundreds of other foods produced without authorization.
Food inspectors around the globe are engaged in a conflict over regulations for trade. Because of varied production standards across borders, food manufacturers have struggled to develop trade agreements to satisfy the global marketplace. But do standardized regulations across the globe make for harmonious trade? Not according to Europe’s food police.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a regulatory agency within the European Union has long accused many nations of sponsoring “food piracy.” The EFSA has enforced a list of more than 600 foods and 4,000 wines and spirits most commonly mislabeled and pirated on the open market. But because each nation sets its own food standards, finding agreement between trading nations globally is a difficult task; particularly when cultural lines are crossed in the name of free-market competition.
Based in Parma, Italy, the EFSA investigates many claims of food counterfeiting. For example, “parmigiano” style cheese is declared a ‘certified name’ and not a ‘brand name’ - as most other grated cheese on the market is not authentic. According to strict Parmigiano-Reggiano production methods, this world-class cheese starts with “grass fed” milk. The curd is bathed in brine for eight weeks, then aged separately another 12 months before being sealed, stamped and put to market. The artisans maintain that knockoff brands like the Kraft invention is pure imitation. Italian experts suggest the American version is aged less, mechanically pressed, made with pasteurized milk, and thereby not “parmigiano” cheese. Yet producers have advertised a knockoff known as “parmesan” on supermarket shelves for decades. The same goes for Prosciutto Di-Parma and other locally crafted foods.
European regulators have also declared feta cheese, largely produced in the cheese rich pastures of Wisconsin to be fake, and have even targeted Denmark as feta frauds - despite the fact that they produce more “feta” cheese than the Greeks - but European Union courts have still sided with Greece.
Italian mozzarella cheese-makers are also disheartened by mass-produced methods that cheapen the overall aesthetics of their craft. American food giants are viewed as the offender of centuries of tradition. Critics blame U.S. producers of spending billions to promote generic terms until they become mainstream, and then monopolize the market.
Despite Europe’s calls for globally accepted trade, the international food police have more conflicts over wines and spirits. Champagne loyalists have long smeared American “sparkling wines” as cheap knockoffs. French wine regulators have also struggled to protect Bordeaux and Chablis from being counterfeited and sold internationally.
Many manufacturers maneuver to cut costs by lowering production standards or cleverly labeling products to avoid legal action. One age-old tug of war comes from the world’s largest beer maker, Anheuser-Busch. The producer of Budweiser beer claims its product has unfairly benefitted a similarly named Eastern European product for years. But some Czech brewers strongly disagree. Local producers of “Budweiser Budvar” have brewed their product for centuries before the American knockoff - over 700 years in total - and demand American royalties.
Cheese producers have also screamed foul at America for aiding the conflict. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (which enforces food regulations and standards in the United States) regulated the size of the holes in Swiss cheese, without approval from Swiss authorities. In the 20 centuries that the Swiss people have cultivated their product, no nation has questioned Swiss production methods. Even Norway calls their similar cheese ‘Jarlsberg’ to avoid complications. Since 2001, U.S. regulations reduced the size of the holes in cheese manufactured stateside, distinguishing the American product from its European counterpart. By reinventing the cheese wheel, American food makers can dominate the market with a smaller and cheaper product to be handled and shipped less expensively.
In another example of trimming quality and production costs, health officials in Britain have recently uncovered a tainted meat scare. After randomly testing hamburger patties from a popular supermarket chain, inspectors from Ireland’s Food Safety Authority discovered the burgers to contain traces of horse meat. Britain’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, was forced to recall millions of burgers from stores after testing discovered up to 29 percent of horse DNA mixed into the beef patties as a cheap filler.
News of the recall sent chills to the employees of Silvercrest Foods, the plant manufacturing the mislabeled food. Fearing a permanent shutdown from the Food Safety Authority, workers in Ireland’s struggling rural economy feared lost wages, as the beef business is big business in the region. Ireland is not alone, as other food mislabeling scandals have caused concern for enforcement authorities across Europe. Today, many nations struggle to meet regulations across the globe.
Because of the thousands of international conflicts, the World Health Organization has taken on the task of mediating concerns and protecting the health of consumers. Under the World Health Organization, a special organization - The Codex Alimentarius Commission - internationally promotes health and food safety for consumers, and assists food producers by encouraging fair food trading practices worldwide. Though each nation administers its own food regulations, the commission’s difficulty rests in finding common ground, promoting its own international standards, and then encouraging nations to comply. Member nations sign treaties with the commission and agree to abide by the standards set forth for trade. Codex initiatives have been met with great success as member nations today cover 99 percent of the world’s population. Still, many countries disagree on Codex manufacturing requirements or simply don’t have the resources to maintain standards.
But the Codex Alimentarius Commission’s job is not easy. Finding common ground for establishing standards while working to improve commerce can be difficult. For instance, if a food producer in Uzbekistan meets the standards of the Uzbekistan Ministry of Agriculture (www.agro.uz), it may not be permitted to sell products to Uganda without adhering to the African nation’s established standards (www.unbs.go.ug). Under Codex, food exporters must adhere to the standards of the nation where the food will be consumed.
Food producers are thereby forced to comply with regulatory agencies from both trading nations, adding time and expense to the process. To offset administrative costs, food manufacturers struggle to find ways to reduce expenses. Often the manufacturers criticize the commission, and America’s counterpart - the USDA - for curtailing free-market competition and imposing unreasonable expenses on private business.
In a book called The Food Police, author Jayson Lusk says an “emerging elite” is forming around the globe who believe they know exactly what we should grow, cook and eat. Lusk explains, the food police are “totalitarians when it comes to food, and they seek control over your refrigerator, by governmental regulation when they can or by moralizing and guilt when they can't.” Examples of politicizing food regulations are now developing on a worldwide scale. Two very different but powerful examples have developed in San Francisco and in the Bavarian region of Germany.
Regulators in San Francisco’s Planning Department recently decided that the city’s police had the final say in whether mobile food carts could conduct business. Because of the ever-present conflicts between brick and mortar businesses and food carts, the police were often the mediators. So the police decided that as long as a food cart was not competing with a shop owner, then a permit could be issued. Allegations of favoritism within the newly deputized food police began when a San Francisco officer cited beverages as being a “similar food.”
The proud beer-brewing region of Bavaria, Germany has recently seen the billion-dollar beer industry joining forces with environmentalists in petitioning government regulators and the energy industry. The German brewer’s federation recently sent a letter to six government ministers asking to cancel environmental legislation approving hydraulic fracking in their country. Brewers are concerned about the environmental impact of fracking on the water supply.
The hotly debated process of extracting natural gas resources from underground coal beds runs the risk of contaminating drinking water, which brewers say is in violation of a 500-year old purity law. The law (known as Reinheitsgebot) states that German beer should be made according to tradition and should only contain water, hops, malt, and yeast. According to law, using other ingredients could have barrels confiscated with no compensation.
During 500 years of innovation, the law has evolved minimally to allow certain amounts of barley and wheat, but has always maintained a strict reliance on pure mountain-sourced drinking water. Suddenly, Germany and the European Union’s food police find themselves in a quandary involving many stakeholders--clearly a skirmish they’d rather avoid. The Implication of contaminated drinking water elevates their regional dispute to one of international interest.
As science evolves, and world commerce expands, the role of food enforcement gets trickier. Food regulators from all over the world are adapting to new technologies and open trade, but as of recent, their plates seem full. Inspectors cannot test every product or proofread every food label. For the consumer, the old adage ‘buyer beware’ should be the best course of protection. In the meantime, make sure the holes in your Swiss cheese sandwich are within regulation.
Eugene Durante is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: nikoretro (Flickr); EssG (Flickr); Debarshi Ray (Flickr); LexnGer (Flickr).