“There’s a sucker born every minute,” P.T. Barnum famously said, and although no one wants to be a sucker, when it comes to claims of farm-to-table, we’re more than likely to find we’ve swallowed farm-to-fable.
All too often, we take it for granted that restaurants that advertise “fresh, local, sustainable, naturally raised, organic, non-GMO, fair-trade, responsibly grown” deliver on their marketing.
What is a farm-to-table restaurant?
The concept of a farm-to-table restaurant isn’t limited to high-end or trendy spots. The format can vary from fine dining to family dining to fast food. But all genuine farm-to-table restaurants have a few core principles: a focus on fresh, wholesome, flavorful food; a commitment to supporting local farmers and producers, sustainable farming, and good animal husbandry practices; and an understanding of the importance of supporting the local economy.
Laura Reiley, an investigative reporter from the Tampa-Bay Times, found that many restaurants willfully tell yarns about their support of these principles.
One such menu reads: “This menu is free of hormones, antibiotics, chemical additives, genetic modification, and is made virtually from scratch.” Reiley reports that many of the ingredients at this establishment come from a box, and they frequently originate in China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and other distinctly non-local sources, often with less stringent food safety standards.
Her conclusion? “Just about everyone tells tales. Sometimes they are whoppers, sometimes they are fibs borne of negligence or ignorance, and sometimes they are nearly harmless omissions or greenwashing.”
Common deceptions include substitutions of other fish species for grouper, switching commodity pork for heritage pork, making false claims of sourcing from famous or trendy food suppliers, and substituting conventional produce for organic produce, to name a few.
When it comes to cattle processing, a mere 2.2 percent of beef, pork, and lamb are naturally raised and antibiotic-free. Message: If you see all-natural steak on a menu for less than $20, be skeptical.
If you see all-natural steak on a menu for less than $20, be skeptical.
So why do restaurants do it?
Many say they try to buy local and sustainable products, but find it impossible to do it 100 percent of the time. And for the price point they’re trying to stick to, it can be prohibitive. Many claim that they are not intentionally trying to rip off the public. But when caught with their pants down, many restaurateurs say something like, “I guess the menu/chalkboard should be updated.”
And what of the rising tide of large fast food corporations making “fresh” and “local” claims?
“I give you a beautiful dress and I tell you that it was made in your town,” says Douglas Gayeton, founder of Lexicon of Sustainability. “But then it turns out that, upon examination, only the thread used to sew the buttons on the cuffs was from your town.
“Large food companies have learned that there’s profit to be made by coopting and highjacking terms that the public has a passing understanding of.”
What you can do
A little education can go a long way. Here are some simple practices you can immediately adopt:
- Understand seasonality — find out what grows in your area and at what times of year. Make the connection between you and your food — visit farms and producers in your area.
- Define local — there is no single definition (other than Thornton Wilder’s witticism of “an agreed upon falsehood”), so ask the manager or chef how they define local.
- Build relationships with the people who work at your local market, co-op and/or restaurant supplier.
- Read labels: Does it say Certified Organic? Certified Humane? Fair Trade? Is there a Country of Origin designation?
Be aware: When it comes to food, what you don’t know can harm you.