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ISSUE: Seafood Fraud

There’s a reason you may not want to buy grouper or snapper, unless the establishment has purchased the whole fish and done its own filleting.

Something similar goes for anything touted as wild shrimp or Gulf shrimp: There’s a 30% chance or more that it’s plain old farmed shrimp.

It’s easy to fall victim to seafood fraud, a costly problem that won’t go away because of unscrupulous suppliers. Restaurants and retailers are victims, and unwittingly sell cheaper, mislabled varieties to consumers.

The fraud exists when fish distributors deliberately mislable cheaper varieties for more expensive, popular ones. Imported basa and swai (whitefish species you’ve probably never heard of) are substituted for the much-in-demand grouper and snapper.

Why the bait-and-switch? Because there isn’t enough domestic supply of the desirable varieties. Imported “fakes” are substituted, and the difference only becomes clear only after the fish is cooked. The flavor and texture is simply not as good.

It’s easy to tell these varieties apart when they come out of the water. But once the fish is filleted, or the shrimp is cleaned, there is no head, scale, or other visual identifier to prove its variety.

It’s not that you won’t get an edible piece of fish. It has no deleterious effect. But it won’t taste as good as the original, and you’ll the price of the better species.
Studies & Solutions



Grouper is a very popular fish, but unscrupulous dealers sell cheaper fish and claim it’s grouper. Photo of fennel-crusted grouper courtesy McCormick. Here’s the recipe.


Food Hospitality, a restaurant industry website, reports on new studies conducted separately by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Oceana, the international ocean conservation organization. Both studies found extensive mislabeling problems at the wholesale level, largely focused on the easy-to-substitute species grouper and snapper.

Last year, Oceana looked at 1,200 fish samples from across the U.S. and found that roughly one-third were mislabeled according to FDA standards. A separate study of shrimp, America’s most-consumed fish or seafood, showed that 31% of restaurants sold misrepresented products, while 41% of retail markets sold misrepresented products.

Whatever species is being mislabled, retailers and restaurants get duped off as well as the consumer. Everyone overpays for lesser-quality fish and shellfish. Consumers, finding their dish less palatable than they had hoped, can bash the establishment online. Everyone loses.

The FDA says that slow progress is being made on the mislabeling front. A presidential task force is looking at the problem.



Basa, a type of catfish, is a cheaper fish often sold as grouper. Unfortunately, it lacks grouper’s particular flavor. Photo courtesy


But there is hope around the corner for fans of grouper.

Checking The RNA Of The Fillet

Researchers at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science have come up with a solution to the grouper problem. Their new product, GrouperChek, is a handheld sensor capable of sniffing out fish fraud on the fly.

Wholesalers and others can assay seafood samples using real-time nucleic acid sequence-based amplification. The instrument identifies whether the RNA is a match.

The researchers say the device is so sensitive, it can detect fake grouper even after the fish has been cooked, breaded and sauced.

Hopefully, now, the seafood supplier will do this testing before agreeing to buy the fish.

And hopefully, devices will be developed to test shrimp and other often-misrepresented species. Finally, there may be a cessation of the passing off of inferior species, which causes restaurants and retailers to unwittingly mislead and overcharge customers.




KICKSTARTER: Hot Bread Kitchen Scholarships

We normally don’t promote Kickstarter campaigns because we have limited bandwidth, and prefer to focus our efforts writing about food.

But here’s an organization we feel strongly about, and your chance to pay it forward for very little.

The Hot Bread Kitchen is a Harlem based artisanal bakery that trains disadvantaged women to become professional bakers. They are raising Kickstarter funds for two scholarships.

The education will create long-term income opportunities for immigrant women, who can then obtain better-paying jobs to support themselves and their families. The graduates typically experience a 77% wage boost, moving on to jobs with benefits and room for career growth.

You can donate as little as $1 to the Women Bake Bread Scholarship.

Thanks for your help!



Immigrant women are trained as bakers. Photo courtesy Hot Bread Kitchen.




FOCUS: So You Want To Be A Food Writer?

This week we received an email from a young food blogger, who asked about writing opportunities at THE NIBBLE. She wanted to “gain industry experience.” We get frequent inquiries of this nature from people of all ages. Here’s our advice.

There are limited career opportunities in food writing. If by “career” you mean an occupation with an income that can support you, the continued demise of magazines and newspapers has resulted in fewer and fewer full-time writing and editing jobs. The outlook is not good.

There always have been many more people aspiring to earn a living as a writer, than there have been positions for them. Now, full-time jobs are drying up. Freelance writing is hard to get; the good jobs rely on connections, and even those pay less and less as the publishing industry profits erode. Many people think they can “pay their dues” by writing for a pittance, or even for free, and subsequently turn that experience into more profitable assignments. Those “dues” will rarely turn into properly paid work. We have colleagues who are highly respected and connected freelancers, with 20 years of experience; they are still offered a few hundred dollars for a large amount of work.


Writing can be very satisfying, but it’s usually far from lucrative. Photo by C. Unie | SXC.

The people we know who blog for different sites get $5 to $10 a blog post, whether it be restaurant reviews, product reviews, recipes or other types of food writing. Like pursuit of the creative arts (acting, music, painting, etc.), pursue the art you love but have a “day job” to pay the bills.

That‘a the down side, the reality of the business. But if you want to give it your best shot, here’s what we suggest:

Have a blog and expand it. If you already have readers, ask them what they’d like to see. Every time you research new content, you add to your professional expertise. Consider interviewing bakers, pastry chefs and industry executives for trends and tips. By interviewing people, you make connections that could lead you to other work.

Ask for ideas and constructive criticism. Speak with people who read other food blogs and ask them for input on yours. Don’t respond directly to criticism; one can’t help but be defensive when one’s work of passion is being judged. Just “take it under advisement” and decide how to address the input.

Get business cards with the title Food Writer or Freelance Food Writer and the link to your blog. You can do this inexpensively at or Every time the topic of food or your occupation comes up, hand out a card. You never know when a connection will be made, if not that day then down the road.

Join industry associations. Not only will you meet people, but the memberships will strengthen your resume. Go to the meetings of local groups, participate in the message boards, attend conferences. Make friends and hand out those cards. Volunteer for committees, where you get to really know people and they see your skills in action. We think the best committee is the programming or speaker committee. It gives you the opportunity to call leaders in the industry and invite them to speak. You’ll get to introduce yourself to someone who would never take your call under other circumstances.

Network, network, network. Take a class and/or read books on networking. Learn how to find leads in every encounter with everyone, from your hairdresser to friends’ parents. Then, give your “elevator pitch” to everyone you speak with (You’ll learn what that is).

Build the skills you need to stand out. The key talent required for success in most fields is not the industry expertise itself, but the business skills: pitching, selling, deal-making. Read books or find a mentor who can help you to build the ability to sell yourself and your ideas.

Get as close as you can to working in a food related business, in any capacity. It’s by meeting people and getting them to know and like you that other opportunities develop. Even if you had a clerical job at an ingredients manufacturer or a restaurant equipment distributor, for example, you could volunteer to do their blog or social media and build the credentials to move up to a job that focuses on writing. Often, a job that gives you the opportunity to write is not a full-time writing job.

Get a certificate in food studies. See what‘s available in your area or online. This will seriously differentiate you from other job candidates. Many major media outlets require their entry-level people to have such a certificate, even if they are Phi Beta Kappa graduates of Harvard who edited the school paper.




FOOD FILM: Butter, The Movie

Got plans this weekend?

How about Butter? The latest film from The Weinstein Company opens today in the United States and Canada.

When we were first invited to a screening of the film, we knew nothing about it except the cast. We thought it would be related to food, hence the invitation.

Well, it’s not about butter, the food. It’s about butter, the sculptural medium.

If you’ve never seen butter sculpture competitions at state or county fairs, you’ll be wowed by the art showcased in the film. Some of it’s tongue in cheek, but all of it made us say “Wow!”

We’re not going to provide a proper film review: We’re food reviewers, not film reviewers.

But in one sentence: We thought the film was quite the tasty spread. We’d see it again.


Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company.


The cast, given fun characters to chew on, includes the boldface names in the movie poster (above) and a preturnaturally wise child, Yara Shahidi. Kristen Schaal also deserves a shout-out.

If the film inspires you to learn the history of butter, the different types of butter, butter storage tips or the how to bake with butter, we’ve got it covered.

And check out our compiled list of real “food films.”



ISSUE: Bee-Ware Of Dishonest Honey

Do you care if your honey is “honest honey”—ethically sourced? Then read the labels.

Last year, the U.S. produced only about 144 million pounds of the 382 million pounds of honey consumed. The remainder was imported from Argentina, Brazil, Canada and other countries.

And it’s the “other countries” wherein the problem lies—specifically, Asian imports.

Two years ago, the U.S. imposed a 500% tariff on honey from China because the Chinese government subsidizes Chinese honey makers, with the goal of driving U.S. producers out of the market. The practice nearly ruined the market for domestic honey.

To get around the tariff, China has been using labels such as “Product of Thailand” or “Product of Indonesia” on 100% Chinese honey, rerouting its products through other countries and/or mixing tiny amounts of Thai or Indonesian honey into Chinese honey. This is neither ethical nor legal. And it’s certainly not sweet.


Only buy “honest honey.” Photo courtesy
National Honey Board.

So keep your eyes open, read labels and strike a blow for justice by buying “honest honey.”

Learn more at

Find the sweet side of honey in THE NIBBLE’s Honey Section: product reviews, recipes, food and honey pairings and articles all about honey.


VIEWPOINT: Change Your Diet For Earth Day


Save yourself and save the planet:
Be sure meat comprises no more than 1/3
of your dish, with 2/3 vegetables. Photo
courtesy National Pork Board.

Thursday is Earth Day, and experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) say one way you can help the planet is by taking a good look at what’s on your plate. If you didn’t get around to healthier eating as a New year’s resolution, now’s a good time to start.

You can choose healthier foods and simultaneously make a difference in preserving some of the earth’s natural resources.

  • By eating more veggies and downsizing meat portions, you’re helping to conserve topsoil and save millions of gallons of water. According to the American Dietetic Association, a 3-ounce beef burger may require about 26 times more water than if you choose a similarly sized veggie burger.
  • Beef requires a lot of energy—for feed, manure management, transportation, slaughter and processing—before it gets to your market. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates if all Americans ate one less serving of beef weekly, we’d lower greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount as if we took about 5 million cars off our roads.
  • And don’t think chicken is the solution: The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that all livestock generate more greenhouse gas emissions than all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet!


You don’t need to eliminate meat from your diet; but the experts point to convincing evidence that diets high in meat increase risk for colon cancer. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans should be the focus of most meals, with meat taking up a supporting role—a 2/3 to 1/3 ratio.

Tips For Health & Earth Day

1. Adopt The New Ratio. It’s easy to follow the “2/3 plants to 1/3 meat” plan. For example, mix a small scoop of brown rice with plenty of colorful vegetables to fill most of your plate, accompanied by 3 ounces of roasted chicken.

2. Size Does Matter. In your 2/3:1/3 plan, keep your portions modest. Recommended sizes: a rounded handful for a serving of pasta or dried beans; a baseball-sized serving for fresh fruit; a meat serving about the size of a deck of cards. Still hungry? Eat a large salad with oil and vinegar.

3. Vegetarian Day. Have a “vegetarian day” once or twice a week. Go dairy-free if you can: A dairy cow contributes as much manure/greenhouse gas as a beef steer.

Download New American Plate brochures and recipes from the AICR to help you save the earth as you improve your health.



NEWS: Sara Lee “Organics” Controversy

Boo, Sara Lee!

According to corporate and governmental watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit farm policy research group, Sara Lee is trying to pull one over on consumers.

The popular supermarket brand has launched a marketing campaign for its EarthGrains bread, using misleading environmental-friendly catchphrases with the hope of attracting people who want to buy organics because they’re better for the environment and healthier to eat.

Sara Lee claims that “Eco-Grain™”—its trademarked ingredient that comprises just 20% of the grain in EarthGrains breads—is more sustainable than organic grain. This is not true, and the Cornucopia Institute has created a comparison chart to detail the differences.


Sara Lee’s EarthGrains line. Not particularly
earth-friendly. Photo courtesy Sara Lee.

According to Charlotte Vallaeys, a Food and Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, “Sara Lee is doing practically nothing to ensure its ingredients are truly ecologically produced. It’s a crass example of a corporation trying to capitalize on the valuable market cachet of organic, while intentionally misleading consumers—without making any meaningful commitment to protect the environment or produce safer and more nutritious food.”

  • The farmers who grow Eco-Grain differ very little from most conventional grain producers who use petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.
  • Organic farmers, on the other hand, use natural fertilizers, compost and crop rotations to enrich the long-term health of the soil, without damaging the environment or potentially contaminating the food produced.
  • Sara Lee’s eco-claim for Eco-Grain production is that their farmers incorporate technology that has reduced chemical fertilizer usage by 15%. That means they’re using 85% chemical fertilizers.
  • In contrast, as mandated by federal law, organic farmers are required by law to reduce their synthetic fertilizer use by 100%—i.e., 0% chemical fertilizers.
  • Plus, as Cornucopia’s Vallaeys points out that, “Even if their new fancy wheat were truly superior, each EarthGrains 24 ounce loaf contains only 20% flour from Eco-Grain, with the remainder of the bread’s wheat coming from regular, conventional wheat. The total reduction in chemical fertilizer use in a loaf of EarthGrains bread therefore amounts to a meager 3%.” According to a Sara Lee press release, “the brand will look to increase the percentage of Eco-Grain in its products.”


To educate consumers about EarthGrains bread made with Eco-Grain wheat, Sara Lee launched a consumer marketing program called “The Plot to Save the Earth, One Field at a Time.“ The campaign includes print, TV, radio and digital advertising, public relations, social media and point-of-sale materials that take a whimsical approach to catch consumers’ eyes with tag lines like, “How your turkey sandwich can help preserve the earth.”

“If advertising executives could be charged with malpractice, this would be a major felony,” said Mark A. Kastel, Co-Director at The Cornucopia Institute.

Now that you’re aware, make your own decisions. If you want to help the environment and eat pesticide-free food, look for the USDA certified organic seal.

Sara Lee also owns the brands Ambi Pur, Ball Park, Douwe Egberts, Hillshire Farm, Jimmy Dean, Kiwi, Sanex and Senseo.


ISSUE: Watch Out For Farmed Salmon & Norwegian Salmon


A salmon farm. Photo courtesy Monterey

Farmed fish is controversial for numerous reasons, but one is threatening the wild salmon population. There are concerns that in another generation, there may be no more wild salmon.

Millions of farmed salmon, raised in pens along coastlines, escape each year (due to equipment failure, extreme weather conditions and human error). In the northern Atlantic Ocean alone, an estimated two million farmed salmon escape annually.

These fugitives fish go on to harm the wild salmon population. Farmed salmon carry parasites that can attack the wild salmon population. Farmed salmon are larger and more aggressive than wild salmon; they compete with wild salmon for the food supply. And worse, they interbreed with the wild salmon population, creating hybrids. (Read more about farmed salmon issues.)


Top seafood chef Rick Moonen, a Las Vegas chef, restaurant owner and early champion for sustainable fishing practices, is now an exclusive supporter of wild salmon. Moonen had endorsed Norwegian farmed salmon years ago, but has since learned the harm caused by the open net technology used in Norway and other places. Even a major retail chain can make a commitment to healthier, more sustainable seafood: Target stores has announced that farmed salmon will be eliminated from their more than 1,700 stores. The company will sell only wild salmon.

Still, if you want to do the right thing, you can be misled by false advertising. According to Food & Water Watch, a non-profit organization that works with grassroots organizations around the world to create an economically and environmentally viable future, the Norwegian Seafood Export Council (NSEC) is misleading U.S. consumers with the false impression that Norwegian salmon is wild, not farmed.

Browse through Food & Water Watch’s website for more information on this and other food issues. You’ll be surprised—and chagrined—at the number of issues facing our food supply.



ISSUES: Kids’ Nutrition

If you read THE NIBBLE, you enjoy good food. But how about what children eat, especially at school? And what of the families who don’t understand nutrition? (Their is no protein in toaster pastries, and juice drinks don’t substitute for milk.)

Even if you don’t have kids, many experts believe that nutritious food helps improve school performance and helps to create healthy eating habits that will be carried into adulthood and passed on to the next generation. That impacts all of us as employers, supervisors, colleagues, neighbors and citizens. Nutrition also plays an important part in helping to reduce obesity, diabetes and other food-related diseases.

During the next two months, Congress will consider a Child Nutrition Reauthorization that will establish the budget and priorities for school lunches for years to come. Now is the time to let our representatives know that we care about the type and quality of food served in our nation’s schools.

Let your voice be heard; tell Congress you want schools serve better lunches to our kids:


If you don’t enjoy good nutrition at home,
maybe you can learn it at school. Photo
courtesy Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

  • Provide $1 more per day per child for better school food.
  • Strengthen nutritional standards regarding all the food offered in schools.
  • Provide funding for healthy eating education and regional farm to school initiatives.

President Obama has committed $1 billion more to the cause of child nutrition, but it’s a big country: an extra dollar per day per child is needed. But funding for anything at this point is tight. You can let Congress know that America’s kids need more…$1 per day per child… for their school food. This is where you can help.


VIEWPOINT: A Chat With Top Chef Master Rick Bayless


Top Chef Master Rick Bayless.

We spent the weekend enjoying a Top Chef Masters marathon on the DVR. We were thrilled with every contestant; anyone who loves great food—and especially those of us who try to cook it—can’t help but give thanks daily for all of the people who expend so much passion, backbreaking labor and stress to please us with their fine cuisine (or great burritos, or whatever). We have experienced the cuisine of all three finalists: the Mexican cooking of Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago; the Italian-influenced California cuisine of Michael Chiarello at Tra Vigne in Napa Valley (the restaurant is still thriving in St. Helena although there have been many chef changes since; Michael recently opened Bottega restaurant in nearby Yountville); and the elegant food of classic French-trained Hubert Keller of San Francisco landmark restaurant Fleur de Lys.

Last week, we caught up by phone with the winner of Top Chef Masters, Rick Bayless, and chatted about his win on Top Chef Masters, against a formidable field of America’s most lauded chefs. We had the chance to ask what really happens behind the scenes on the show.

TN: Because of your celebrity, were the master chefs treated better than the regular Top Chef contestants?
RB: The only difference was that we had private rooms in a nice hotel [as opposed to sharing rooms in a group house]. Otherwise, we ran ragged day and night. I lost 10 pounds. I didn’t have time to phone my wife or restaurants once in the four-day finale. Not a minute to make a call—that’s unheard of for me!

TN: Did you really have absolutely no help to get all that work done—especially in the finale when you were plating food for nine judges (Top Chef judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons as well as the five winners of the original Top Chef program)?

RB: No help at all. We did everything ourselves, including peeling and chopping garlic and washing pots. If you needed a certain pan and there was only one of them, after another chef used it, you had to wash it yourself.

TN: Given the skill level of the master chef contestants, what do you consider the keys to success in the competition?
RB: The ability to handle the stress and to get it all done with no help. Chefs at the masters level have been working with a team of assistants for a long time. We were on our own. I was shredding 180-degree tongue with my bare fingers against a clock, burning my hands. There’s also the luck of the draw; with the street food challenge, for example, as well as with the ingredients you’re given. I’m very comfortable with making street food, I was very comfortable with my ingredients; I won the challenge. Finally, there’s the luck of making the right decision in the first place. If what you’ve chosen to do isn’t working, there’s no time to go back and change things.

TN: You’ve won $100,000 for the Frontera Farmer Foundation, which gives grants to family farmers for equipment that helps them in important ways. It will be a huge help for the Foundation. If you could do Top Chef Masters again and potentially win another $100,000, would you be game?
RB: I’d have to think long and hard about it!

You can learn more about the Frontera Farmer Foundation and make a contribution to this worthy cause. If it weren’t for family farmers, there wouldn’t be such exceptional produce and meat—not to mention cream, cheese, herbs and so many more types of food—that go into making meals so special at the fine restaurants we love so much.



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