Then there was the horsemeat sold all over Europe as, well, anything but horsemeat.
And now, the state raided 29 New Jersey restaurants and bars suspected of substituting cheap alcohol for premium brands. One bar allegedly subbed rubbing alcohol mixed with caramel food coloring for scotch, and another sold dirty water as liquor.
Is nothing sacred?
Maybe the old switcheroo behind the bar is nothing new, but in the wake of “Operation Swill,” Bamboozled wanted to know: How can consumers be sure they’re getting what they pay for when dining out?
“You can’t, unless you’re in the kitchen watching,” said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, who noted that only one of the establishments busted in the sting was a member of her group.
But there are ways to be a smart consumer, even if it’s from a barstool or the booth of a restaurant.
It’s a mix of trust and your taste buds.
WHY BOOZE MATTERS
Some wonder why it’s a big deal if consumers paid a few pennies, or even dollars more, for premium brands they didn’t receive.
Division of Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) director Michael Halfacre said there are over 7,000 licensed establishments in the state, and “the vast majority of them are law abiding and serve their customers what they ask for and pay for.”
His team of investigators started its work about a year ago based on complaints from consumers and tips from a confidential informant. In January and February, 63 establishments were patronized by investigators, who took secret samples of the drinks they ordered.
The samples were then tested with a relatively new technology — the True Spirit Authenticator — which uses light-emitting technology to identify the booze at hand.
The U.K.-made machine is a “portable ultraviolet spectro photo meter,” according to industry trade publication BeverageMedia.com, which said that in 30 seconds, the device works with clear, golden and brown spirits and can detect if the liquid is adulterated or counterfeit by comparing it to the liquors stored in its memory
The state then sent the samples to the premium brand manufacturers to confirm the findings.
So if ABC investigators aren’t able to tell the difference without this technology, how can the average consumer?
“It’s not an easy one,” Halfacre said. “In determining that you’re served what you ask for, it’s really up to the consumer.”
He said consumers tend to be brand loyal, so there’s a taste they’re expecting.
Fair enough. But that wouldn’t help a consumer who has had a few, therefore his palate may not be working in tip-top shape.
“That doesn’t make it right,” he said. “In fact the argument could be after someone’s judgment might be clouded, that they become more susceptible to victimization. That doesn’t make it right and that doesn’t excuse an establishment from complying with the law.”
Halfacre said the scam is about more than a couple of drinks, and the victims are not just individual consumers. Calling it a multi-billion dollar problem, he said the fakery means wholesalers and suppliers are selling less premium alcohol.
It hurts small businesses, too.
“It’s not a level playing field,” he said. “If I have Joe’s Bar and if someone across town is selling cheap liquor at a premium price, that could put Joe’s Bar out of business. If Joe is selling premium liquor at premium prices, he can’t compete.
Before August 2012, you could not buy Kobe beef in the U.S., yet restaurants advertised and sold Kobe everything — high-priced burgers, steaks, you name it.
Maybe it was tasty, but it wasn’t Kobe — unless the chef smuggled it inside his suitcase.
Seafood has seen its problems, too.
Earlier this year, conservation group Oceana released a study that found massive fish fraud in restaurants and supermarkets.
One-third of samples it took from retail outlets in 21 states were mislabeled based on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
Among the findings?
Snapper was mislabeled 87 percent of the time. Only seven of the 120 red snapper samples were actually red snapper.
Tuna was mislabeled 59 percent of the time. Between one-fifth to more than one-third of halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean seabass samples were mislabeled.
You get the idea.
So how do we know what we’re getting in a restaurant?
This is where trust comes in, said the experts we spoke to. They said it’s important to visit and re-visit restaurants where you’ve had a good experience, or try places your friends recommend. If a good meal was had there the first time, it’s more likely diners will see a repeat performance.
But you don’t have to dine blindly. Get to know the manager or owner, and ask questions about how the business is operated, how certain meals are prepared or about the quality of the ingredients.
It’s also okay to ask where the food is coming from, said Rick Osso, owner/operator of Rudy’s, with locations in Garwood and Closter.
“As a restaurant owner it is important to buy your fish and meat from a reputable supplier,” he said. “Each delivery must be checked to make sure the items ordered are fresh, properly handled, labeled properly and correct.”
He said most fish and meat items are distinct in their own way, so most customers will know if the taste or texture of what they ordered does not seem right.
“Trust your instincts,” Halvorsen said. “Don’t hesitate to ask questions. If you’re not comfortable or something doesn’t taste right, ask the manager.”
Start before you order, though, with the wait staff. Servers are generally well-educated about the menu and any specials offered by the chef.
If the server is unable or unwilling to help, ask for the manager or owner.
If they can’t answer your questions, find another place to eat.
HOW TO ORDER?
So there doesn’t seem to be much consumers can do — short of carrying all kinds of scientific equipment with them — to be sure they’re getting what they pay for in a restaurant. You can still try these common sense tips:
- Be realistic: Don’t expect a high quality filet mignon if it’s priced at $7.95, unless someone has recommended it. Let them be the guinea pigs.
- Talk to your server: One of Bamboozled’s favorite questions is what the server had for dinner that night. If there are specials, what looks good? Most servers will be honest, and heck, it’s reasonable for them to hope for a better tip if they offer a good meal suggestion.
- If you’re not happy, say so: If something doesn’t seem right, give the restaurant a chance to fix it or explain. If an error was made or there’s an issue with quality, the manager or owner will want to know. Their livelihood depends on getting customers to come back time and time again.
- Consider BYOB establishments: You will always get the alcohol you’re expecting to get.
- Always order the cheap stuff: That way you’ll never have to worry about your order being downgraded.
In all seriousness, if you do have an experience in which you think you were served sub-standard food or alcohol, file a complaint:
- New Jersey Restaurant Association: (800) 848-6368 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control: (866) 713-8392 or nj.gov/oag/abc/investigations.html
- Division of Consumer Affairs: (973) 504-6200 or njconsumeraffairs.gov/comp.htm