Two stories recently landed at Wallet Mouth H.Q. that I wish I could say were jokes.
First, the Washington Post reports that a couple of high schoolers in New York discovered, through DNA tests, that 11 out of 66 food products they'd bought from an assortment of Manhattan markets had been fraudulently mislabeled, with "sheep's milk" cheese turning out to be from a cow and "sturgeon caviar" being revealed as Mississippi paddlefish.
Then, undercover Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators succeed in getting Energy Star certification for 15 bogus products, such as an "air cleaner" consisting of a space heater with fly strips and a duster adhered to it. (Here's the link.)
The food-fraud story wasn't a complete surprise. After all, as I noted last year, a vendor at my local farmers' market clued me in to the fact that lots of supposedly 100% extra-virgin olive oil not only isn't extra-virgin but also is adulterated with other, cheaper oils. I also have friends who work for a company that provides "traceability services," helping food-industry clients ensure that their offerings are on the straight and narrow.
But until I read Sarah Lutz's story about the Energy Star kerfuffle, I didn't realize that products bearing the highly regarded blue-and-white logo are not tested before they go to market (merely "some" are scrutinized after they are on the market). The ersatz air cleaner even lacked a required disclaimer and safety-standard number... and still got certified. All GAO investigators had to do was tell the authorities in an email that the product met the standards.
This is a pretty big blow to what I had always considered a credible certification system. People can get tax credits with certain Energy Star purchases, fer cryin' out loud. I can only hope that "Energy Star-Gate" will help the system grow some teeth.
And if it doesn't, we can take heart in the fact that the growing field of smart appliances will shine light into the dark crevices of mislabeled appliances, eventually rendering energy-efficiency fraud a thing of the past.
As for the food scams, that's a tough one, seeing as how the FDA can barely keep up with contamination issues, and better funding for the agency seems unlikely in this economy. But is it really so unreasonable to hope that the FDA could integrate traceability systems like the kind offered by my friends' company into its workings?
At the very least, the feds should approve food-category-specific standards (mentioned in the Washington Post story), such as those petitioned for by honey and olive-oil groups (the latter has been waiting nearly 20 years!), so that companies would be able to sue competitors suspected of selling impure products.
Creative Commons-licensed tarot image by Flickr user Maitri.