#FACTS For the past year, the food world has been awash in scandals. Investigations from the likes of 60 Minutes, Inside Edition, 20/20, Bloomberg and the Tampa Bay Times have exposed fraud with extra virgin olive oil, sushi, parmesan cheese, Kobe beef, a huge swath of so-called “farm to table” restaurants, all sorts of seafood, and much more. We’ve seen lamb and lobster dishes sold without containing their namesake ingredients, shrimp laden with banned antibiotics, and dozens of factories in China devoted to producing counterfeits of popular name brand condiments.
But the latest hot button food deception issue isn’t something you eat, it’s something you drink.
In the past few days, several news outlets have reported on a class action lawsuit filed against the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, claiming it duped consumers into buying “craft beer” that was far from artisan. The product in question is four styles of beer under the Trouble Brewing label, sold in cans with a distinctly craft beer look that describe the products as brewed by Trouble Brewing in upstate New York. Just as many bottles of olive oil read “bottled in Italy,” which is literally true even when their contents are not from Italy, “brewed by” seems to be very different from “brewed at,” since there is no Trouble Brewing brewery. The brand is contract produced for Walmart at the large industrial Genessee plant.
The lawsuit basically suggests that there is nothing “craft” about the beer and that consumers were duped into overpaying for what they thought was a better product. Food and beverage website Thrillist.com reprinted a section of the actual suit that read, “Through a fraudulent, unlawful, deceptive, and unfair course of conduct, [Walmart] manufactured, marketed, and/or sold its ‘Cat’s Away IPA,’ ‘After Party Pale Ale,’ ‘Round Midnight Belgian White,’ and ‘Red Flag Amber’ Craft Beers to the residents of Ohio and 44 other states with the false representation that the Craft Beer is, in fact, a ‘craft beer’ when, in actuality, nothing about [Walmart] is ‘small, traditional and independent’ to qualify it as an American craft brewer per the Brewer’s Association.”
And therein may lie the rub in this particular case. The most widely repeated definition of “craft beer” is not a legal definition by regulators but rather one created by the trade association for small breweries, which common sense suggests has a vested interest in shaping the definition to benefit its stakeholders. For example, one determining factor is that the producer be independently owned, a requirement which does not, at least to me, logically limit the potential “craftiness” or quality of the product produced.
But food and beverage deceptions do not have to violate state or federal regulations to deceive consumers. Foe example, Real Kobe beef comes from a very rare and particular breed of cattle raised under specific rules in Kobe, Japan, but its producers were unable to obtain trademark protection in this country, so virtually any beef product can legally be called Kobe beef here, and especially on restaurant menus, this is often the case. There are only ten eateries in the entire country that import and serve the real thing from Japan, yet the term appears on hundreds, maybe thousands, of menus nationwide, from fictionalized Kobe sliders, burgers and even hot dogs to steaks with three-figure price tags at high-end eateries. But while it may be legal to call something Kobe beef that is not, it becomes another problem when restaurants deceive the consumer into believing that the Kobe they claim to serve is the actual delicacy from Japan, and lawyers have had success using class action suits to obtain settlements from larger restaurant groups marketing what is call FauxBe beef to customers.