Your Restaurant Could Be Lying About Its Farm-To-Table Fare

Brilliance | Dec. 11, 2017

If you've ventured to a trendy neighborhood eatery in the past decade, you've probably been inundated with the foodie terms "locally sourced" and "farm-to-table." Menus boast pork shoulders from a well-known farm just outside your city and cocktails made with artisanal honey from nearby co-ops. If you were to actually visit those places, though, you may find out the sad truth: most of restaurants' claims about where they get their ingredients are totally false.

Linen-White Lies

In April 2016, a food critic for the Tampa Bay Times named Laura Reiley published her two-month investigation of the farm-to-table restaurants in the Tampa area, titled "Farm to Fable." She went to such lengths as to track down farmers whose names were written on chalkboards and sneak suspicious fish into baggies in her handbag for DNA testing. What did she find? A lot of restaurants either were misinformed by their distributors, fibbed a bit about their sourcing, or, in many cases, flat out lied about some of the dishes on their menus. It's hard to overstate how widespread the problem really is. Reiley claims that "if you eat food, you are being lied to every day."

One such Tampa restaurant, Pelagia Trattoria, listed "Florida blue crab" as an ingredient in their squid-ink linguini. When a sample of the crab was DNA tested by scientists at the University of South Florida, the meat was identified as a different species of crab from the Indian Ocean—and when pressed, the restaurant's sous chef admitted it came from a can. They're not the first and they won't be the last: the nonprofit conservation group Oceana led a study in 2012 that revealed that 33 percent of 1,215 fish samples tested nationwide were mislabeled by restaurants, and a 2006 grouper scandal in the U.S. Gulf Coast revealed that diners who ordered the grouper fresh catch would really get a type of farm-raised Asian catfish called Cambodian ponga. Other types of seafood, such as Gulf shrimp and Alaskan pollock, are often frozen and shipped from other countries, such as India and China. So how can you tell? If the price looks too good to be true, it probably is. Reilly gives a pointer to NPR: "If you see that $10 lobster roll, something is fishy." Pun intended, we're sure.

What This Means For Farmers

Sometimes restaurants list actual farms or even farmers' names on their menus. Reiley decided to follow up on these claims, and the results were just as dismal. Many farmers responded that celebrity restaurants would source from them a handful of times, then quit, but they'd still keep the farm's name on their chalkboards. One upscale Tampa restaurant, BOCA, actually listed a farm whose owner hadn't even heard of the establishment. When restaurant owners were called out on these lies, most of them replied with a shrug:"I guess that should come off the chalkboard." For some restaurants, this was an honest mistake—they simply hadn't updated their menus. For others, however, they were caught red handed. Consumers will pay more for "locally sourced" items, and there aren't any government regulations in place to stop restaurants from fibbing.

This dishonesty hurts both the diner and the local farmers. Patrons are being mislead and often paying more for lower quality food. And if they eat what they think is "Farmer Joe's pork chops," but in reality is a lower-quality knockoff, they may decide that the meat from Joe's farm isn't worth the extra money. In such instances, the trendy restaurant is actually hurting their local farm. In many ways, the source of this issue comes down to semantics. What does "local" even mean? Until we have more legal definitions for foods, it's the Wild West out there. But the next time you visit your local farm-to-table cafe, go all Portlandia on them, and start asking the tough questions.

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