Are You Getting What You Paid For? Key Food Questions to Ask

Have you ever found yourself in the seafood department wondering something like, "What is scrod, exactly??" Well, it might be cod, haddock or other whitefish. It may refer to the way it was cut and deboned. The term 'scrod' doesn't let you know exactly what you are getting, let alone know if it was sourced from a sustainable fishery. To navigate the complicated world of making more sustainable food choices, here are a few questions to ask to make sure you are getting the real deal.

To a Fishmonger at a Seafood Shop

How were the fish caught?

If American wild caught, then it might be the real thing. If not, the fish may not even be the advertised species. From 2010-2012, the oceans advocacy group, Oceana, analyzed 1,215 seafood samples collected from 674 retail outlets in 21 US states. Through DNA testing, they found that one-third of the samples were mislabeled. So, knowing how the fish were caught (and perhaps even knowing who the fishermen are) is a big first step in finding out if the fish you order are the fish you actually get. And aside from being duped (and maybe paying more money for inferior product), some mislabeling can cause real problems. For example, a fish called escolar, sometimes sold as "white tuna", contains a toxin that can cause gastrointestinal problems.

 In addition to asking the fishmonger, you can use the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide as a helpful tool to help you make better seafood choices. If you want more details, we highlight a few more guides here

To a Seller at a Farmers' Market or Farmstand

Where do you grow your food? What sustainable growing practices do you use?

Real farmers will have the answers (quick reminder: sellers aren't always the farmers at farmers' markets and sometimes farm stands, but they should still have answers). The New York City Greenmarket has rigorous "grow-your-own" standards, so you know that your food dollars are going to the farms and farmers that are growing your food. But not all farmers' markets have such strict standards, so that is why a good answer to the above question is important. Some "farmer" stands at farmers' markets may be reselling food that a local grocery store turned away and may have been shipped from a distant location. If you don't get a satisfying answer to your question, maybe take your business to the next stall over that can answer your questions!  

To a Waiter at a Restaurant

Where do you source your food?

If advertised as farm to table or seasonal, they or the chef should know. In an article in the Miami Herald in April 2016, Tom Colicchio noted the importance of local food in his cooking, but the article also left a bit of his caution:

Farm-to-table is a throwaway term that Colicchio thinks gets misappropriated, as was shown in a series of recent articles by the Tampa Bay Times that exposed local restaurants that claimed to be using local products but weren't. Colicchio admits finding fresh ingredients year round in Florida can be a challenge -- "Summer in Florida is like the middle of winter in New York," he said -- but that he says is no reason to lie to diners.

"Don't get lazy," he told the chefs at his restaurants after the revelation. But he says that's also good advice for diners.

"If you're a consumer and you care about this stuff, ask the question," he said. "There are a lot of people out there claiming they're doing the right thing and they're not."

To a Butcher in a Meat Department

(Beef): How was the meat finished?

The answer may be grass fed or grain fed. Grain fed cattle will most likely have come from an industrial feedlot, where the animals are fattened quickly on grain in order to be brought to market. Grass finished cattle will more likely to have been raised humanely and fed a more natural diet. In addition to asking the question, you can also look for grass-fed on the label. The USDA Organic label doesn't let you know if the livestock was finished on grain or grass, but it does.

(Poultry and pork): Did the birds or pigs have access to pasture?

If no, then the birds or pigs were probably produced on a factory farm. Also look for the Animal Welfare Approved label to ensure the animal was raised humanely. The USDA Organic label lets you know that the animals were raised on organic feed and had access to pasture (but it doesn't tell you if the animals took advantage of that "access").

These questions should help you become a little more connected to where your food comes from. You may even start a conversation with your food purveyor and learn more than you expected. But at least you'll feel more confident that what you are buying is the real thing.


Image "Greenmarket Truck" by Pamela Drew on Flickr used under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.