When farm to table is really fraud to table

As more consumers become interested in locally sourced foods and sustainable farming, restaurants are racing to oblige. Many now offer detailed pedigrees of the ingredients they use to create the dishes on their menus. Unfortunately, some of those claims are misleading or outright fabrications.

According to a recent expose in the Tampa Bay Times, one restaurant in the Tampa area advertised "Florida Blue Crab" that actually came from the Indian Ocean. Another eatery claimed to get pork from a farmer that didn't sell to it, while a third, which prided itself on avoiding GMO ingredients in its salads, probably used them.

Given how many consumers are seeking out fresh and healthy food choices, the risks businesses take in lying about where they get their products are huge.

"Today's operator needs to avoid serving ingredients that differ from what's being promoted on the menu," said Darren Tristano, president of the restaurant research firm Technomic. "If they disclose the substitutes verbally or in a manner that communicates to the customer, this should be OK. Doing so without communication will be viewed as dishonest and untrustworthy, and negatively affect the brand."

Brendan Walsh, a dean at the Culinary Institute of America, experienced the problem first-hand a few years ago when he owned a restaurant. A "very wealthy, famous actor," whom he didn't name, opened an establishment near his that featured goat cheese from supplier Rainbeau Ridge, which also supplied his establishment. Rainbeau Ridge, however, hadn't sold to the celebrity's restaurant in months. A spokesman for Rainbeau Ridge couldn't be reached.

"How could they have fresh goat cheese from them?" said Walsh, whose school has trained many of the country's top chefs. "Even the affluent use this as a marketing ploy."

The "farm to table" movement, which had its origins in the hippie culture of the 1960s, has spread from a handful of progressive cities such as Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, to the mainstream over the last decade or so. According to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association, 57 percent of consumers said the availability of local food is an important factor in deciding where to dine out. Another 68 percent said they're more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced items.

According to Richard McCarthy, executive director of farm to table advocate Slow Food USA, consumers have a hunger for "authentic" food -- and some restaurants and market operators are willing to cut corners to meet it.

"It was totally unexpected 20 years ago that we would be at this place now," he said. "The farm to table movement has given many farmers their first leg into new market, a new way of building their business and growing product that consumers will pay more for."

But if the public doesn't trust the quality of that food, the results could be disastrous, which is why Slow Food USA advocates a third-party verification system it has dubbed its "Snail of Approval." Restaurants, farms and stores are eligible for the certification. Though other organizations offer such seals of approval, all of these efforts are in their early stages.

The farm to table trend is also squeezing profit margins of restaurants as increased demand for already-scarce supplies of locally grown products drives up prices.

Addressing the issue of food fraud is tricky. For one thing, regulators haven't defined what's meant by "local" and "sustainable." And food labeled "organic" may not be as pristine as some consumers might imagine, according to Laura MacCleery, an attorney with the Center for Science and the Public Interest.

"In a market where the lowest-cost provider wins," said Culinary Institute of America's Walsh, "there's going to be a lot of pressure on buyers and sellers, and chefs are included in that mix to try to find ways to compromise."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.