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Can you trust 'farm to table' claims from restaurants?

How local is your restaurant's 'local' food? A recent investigation digs up some dirt on 'farm-to-table' restaurant claims that spurs national attention. Get tips on how you can tell if your favorite restaurants' claims are true.

As diners’ hunger for local food grows to insatiable heights, restaurant owners and chefs have met the demand by sourcing more ingredients from regional farmers and suppliers. At least that’s the story they’re telling—on menus, chalkboards and websites.

And that’s the story restaurant diners are eating up. It’s not just about dining out for a delectable plate of food anymore. Now we want to dine out, enjoy a delectable plate of food and feel good about supporting our local farmers and artisans.

So we paint the local story: We’re willing to pay premium for those tomatoes picked just this morning from Farmer Joe down the road. Not only will they taste better and fresher, but the story also helps us reduce our carbon footprint guilt. You see, we'd like to believe that Chef Cory and Farmer Joe are pals—they meet just out back of the restaurant every day, as Joe totes crates of ripe tomatoes from his pickup truck right into Cory’s kitchen. “Joe!” the kitchen staff says in unison as they greet their favorite local grower. The kitchen baker tosses Joe a warm roll fresh out of the oven. “See you tomorrow, Joe!” says Cory, and he starts prepping those juicy tomatoes, slicing them into plump rounds for our menu favorite: Farmer Joe’s Salad.

While this story (or a version of it) truly does play out in many restaurants across America, a recent investigation into ‘farm-to-table’ declarations pulled back the veil on these often-adulterated claims. Laura Reiley, a food critic for Tampa Bay Times, said she’s been a restaurant critic since 1991 and has always known there are fraudulent menu claims. But, she says, “It was around 2012 that Tampa Bay menus sprouted the sentence ‘we source locally’ near the admonition about consuming raw or undercooked meats. Fiction started to seem like the daily special.”

Digging up dirt on ‘local’ claims

After seeing one too many Sysco’s Fudgy Wudgy chocolate layer cakes passed off as the “housemade dessert,” she decided to dig into the dirt on local claims. For several months, she sifted through menus from every Tampa area restaurant she’d reviewed since the farm-to-table trend started. Of 239 restaurants still in business, 54 were making claims about the provenance of their ingredients. If local fish claims seemed suspicious, for example, she kept zip-top baggies in her purse and tucked away samples. The Tampa Bay Times had them DNA tested by scientists at the University of South Florida. She also visited farms, called producers and questioned vendors.

Reiley’s conclusion? “Just about everyone tells tales,” she wrote in a recent article for the Times Food Critic section. “Sometimes they are whoppers, sometimes they are fibs borne of negligence or ignorance, and sometimes they are nearly harmless omissions.” 

Her investigation uncovered many menu fabrications. At one restaurant, cheese curds that the staff claimed were ‘made in house’ actually arrived in a box. At another venue, what the menu said was wild Alaskan Pollock was actually frozen Chinese Pollock treated with sodium tripolyphosphate. At a third eatery claiming they served Florida wild-caught shrimp, she discovered the shrimp were actually farm-raised in India. Her list of local lies goes on … and on … and on.

Where the pressure comes from

In a recent interview with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, Reiley spoke about her investigation. “What got me interested in this topic is I’ve done a lot of agriculture writing in the couple of years in Florida, and met with a lot of farmers,” Reiley shared. “And they’ve all groused about this a little bit. That they’re used as billboards at these restaurants. A restaurant may buy from them once or twice and then phase them out but keep them on the chalkboard or on the menu.”

Though her investigation was done in Florida, Reiley is certain false restaurant menu claims is a widespread phenomenon. She also says she understands why chef-owners would feel the pressure to make more local claims. “I think that we as Americans have really come to expect inexpensive food,” Reiley says. “We spend a very small amount of our disposable income on food, and restaurateurs have to cope with that. They have to figure out how to offer food to us at a price we will pay, while buying the best ingredients that they can. And often, as in any other business, it’s buy low and sell high.”

And even though Reiley’s investigation isn’t completely shocking, her story has now made national headlines. Not all in the food service industry are willing to defend the chefs and owners, even if they claim ignorance and cite the growing pressures from their local-loving customer base.

Michael Pollan, former New York Times food columnist and author of Cooked; In Defense of Foods; and The Ominvore's Dilemma, says it's a full-blown case of fraud.

How to tell if your ‘local’ food is actually local

So how can you trust your favorite restaurants’ claims that the food they’re serving you is produced on farms within a certain radius of your table?

Reiley offers these tips:

Understand seasonality: Know what grows in your local region or state and when. For example, when you know that apples aren’t grown locally, it will be a red flag when a restaurant claims your deep dish apple pie is made with local apples. 

Define “local”: There’s no formal definition—or consensus—on the term local. If a market or restaurant is making a local claim, ask the manager or chef to explain what that means to them. And then, decide for yourself if local is what you really want. For many, eating locally means eating seasonally, which frequently means relying on a more limited repertoire of foods. “Americans want farm-to-table local, but they want the grocery store experience,” says Emily Rankin, a food supplier in Florida.

Get involved: Small, local farmers don’t have lobbying resources. Big Ag’s thumb is on the scale. Grocers and restaurants want and need a profit, so they buy low and sell high. It's up to us, as consumers, to back local farmers and suppliers when we notice or suspect a false claim.

Reiley also provides this advice from the farmers she’s spoken with:

• All of these people claiming to support the local farmer: You basically need to trap them in their own words. 'Can I see your last invoice? Show me your documentation.'”— Jim Wood, Palmetto Creek Farms

• “I tell customers to try to do business with a farmer, not with a broker. If I was a customer, I’d want to go see the animals. Ultimately that’s what needs to happen.”—Tom Siverson, Pasture Prime Family Farm

• “There are a lot of resellers saying ‘this is local and organic.’ The best thing you can do is go out and visit the farms. Make that connection. And always ask if it’s locally grown. Build real relationships with the people who make your food.”—Emily Rankin, Local Roots

• “Farmers don’t want to be perceived as the junkyard dogs. We tend to not like controversy. The tractor never argues with us.”—Joel Salatin of Virginia farm Polyface

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