The Globalization of Edible Things

Over the past few years, as eaters around the world come to terms with their food and where it comes from, we’ve also learned about the shadowy world of food adulteration, or as it’s commonly known, food fraud. Fraud—when phantom ingredients are hiding in food or cheaper items are passed off as the more expensive version—happens for a few reasons. Usually it’s cost, where substituting ingredients that consumers may never detect can affect the bottom line, especially at large scale.

But questions arise about our food because of its origin, too, which isn’t always easy to pinpoint. The primary agency in the U.S. that tries to root out fraud is the Food and Drug Administration. Yet the agency’s mandate is primarily for health, not weather your olive oil is actually extra virgin. Officials simply can’t inspect every shipment that comes into U.S. ports. Nor can they stay on top of a food system that’s increasingly global.

Tuna might be the best example of our worldwide food system. Here’s the usual path a can of tuna takes to make it to the U.S. After the fish is caught in East Asia, it makes a handful of stops for processing, canning, and labeling before arriving on U.S. shelves. Click the image for a larger version.

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Source: Government Accountability Office

Fish is illustrative of global food sourcing because of the geographic limits on where it’s available. The fragmented chain allows for a stunning amount of seafood fraud, according to a series of impressive reports the ocean advocacy organization Oceana has done over the past few years. Supply chains for other crops, including rice, cereals, and some types of tropical fruit can be just as indirect. It doesn’t matter if you live next to a corn farm. That corn sometimes has to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to be processed before arriving back in the same zip code.

Is globalization good for food? It’s true that global shipping allows access to more crops for more people. It’s also true that the environmental costs of operating ships and trucks all over the world add up. And that’s before assessing the risk of fraud at any point along the supply chain. Like most questions about what we eat and where it comes from, the answer depends on who you ask and how hungry he is.