Eater Beware: How to Avoid Being Duped by Food Fraud

The shocking New York Times story about alleged sexual harassment and abusive workplace culture at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island overshadowed another serious allegation, that the restaurant committed food fraud by routinely misleading diners about the sourcing of its ingredients. Former employees said that although Chef Blaine Wetzel claimed to only use locally foraged, fished, and farmed products, supermarket vegetables stood in for local beets and broccoli, chickens came from Costco, and Pacific octopus was delivered frozen from Spain and Portugal.

If these accounts are to be believed, the Willows Inn’s substitutions are one of the most high-profile examples of food fraud that’s come to light over the past decade. Seafood, olive oil, certain spices, and even Bagel Bites are among the food products you could have purchased without realizing that what you were actually getting might have been deceptively labeled – or even completely fraudulent.

Did you think something was fishy about your last sushi dinner? You may have been right. A 2019 report by the seafood conservation group Oceana found that 21 percent of the fish samples they tested were deceptive, with 26 percent of restaurants selling mislabeled seafood. Imported fish was frequently passed off as local, and more than half of all the sea bass was actually something else. Italian research published the same year estimated that 15 percent of all swordfish being sold was actually shark. And a 2013 episode of This American Life noted the similarity between fried calamari and hog rectum, alleging that some restaurants were substituting a pork-based product for squid. (However, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service never reported any examples of mislabeled “imitation” calamari.)

Olive oil is another product under scrutiny for deceptive labeling. In a 2010 study by the University of California Davis Olive Center, nearly 70 percent of imported extra-virgin olive oil failed to meet the quality standards required to have that label. The Olive Center suggested that poor-quality oils were often being passed off as extra-virgin, and that cheaper refined oils such as hazelnut oil that are difficult to detect were sometimes mixed in. Later that year, the USDA adopted new standards for grading olive oils, although not all manufacturers follow them.

Spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, and saffron are also rife for fraudulent substitution. Real Ceylon cinnamon, which usually comes from Sri Lanka and elsewhere in southeast Asia, has a more delicate flavor than cassia cinnamon, which is often grown in southern China and contains higher amounts of a harmful toxin called coumarin. In addition, ground cinnamon can contain fillers like coffee husks. If you’re buying vanilla extract, know that it’s sometimes not made from real vanilla beans, but from a synthetic compound called vanillin. And saffron, derived from the flower of a species of crocus and said to be the world’s most expensive spice, has sometimes been forged with dried flowers or corn silk threads.

Of course, not every example of food fraud is found in nature. Just last week, a Wisconsin woman sued Kraft Heinz Foods, the maker of Bagel Bites. She claimed that the company mislabeled the product as having “real” mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce, when it’s actually made from a cheese blend and a sauce with “non-tomato extenders and thickeners.”

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to avoid being duped by imitation food. You don’t have much recourse if a restaurant is flat-out lying to you, although the more questions you ask, the more likely you are to discover the truth about what’s happening in the kitchen. (You probably don’t need to find out the name of your chicken, as was brilliantly parodied in the restaurant sketch from the first episode of Portlandia.) Although I can’t say for sure that all of the ingredients used in my dinner at the Willows Inn came from Lummi Island, I did tour the expansive garden near the restaurant, and recognized some of the items, like squash blossoms and nasturtium flowers, that were apparently used in dishes I ate the night before.

For seafood products, your best strategy is to be sure and ask your local restaurant or fish market about their sourcing practices. You can also frequent establishments, such as Mashiko in West Seattle, that are transparent about where their fish comes from and that have shown a commitment to sustainability. And you can avoid ingredients like sea bass that have a higher chance of being something else entirely.

When you’re buying olive oil, look for labeling on a bottle that shows certification from either the California Olive Oil Council or a similar international organization. (Italian olive oils, for example, will have a “DOP” logo showing that the product was prepared using traditional methods.)

For spices, buy only from reputable grocers, and read the label carefully to make sure you’re getting what you think you are. Whenever possible, buy whole spices, like cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans, instead of processed versions. And let price be your guide – for example, an inexpensive container of saffron threads isn’t likely to be the real thing (and if you buy it, you might later realize that you’re mad about saffron). You can also test your purchase by adding a few threads into a container of water. Real saffron will slowly turn the water yellow while maintaining its own red color.

And if you’re concerned about the actual mozzarella and tomato content in your Bagel Bites? You probably have bigger issues than food fraud. I’d suggest making your own version – or, if that’s too much trouble, just order a pizza.

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What I Ate: Squash blossoms and local flowers with nasturtium puree at the Willows Inn

The Willows Inn, where I ate these squash blossoms, has been accused of food fraud