Farm-to-table is the latest trendy food movement, and at the surface, it all seems wonderful—the ability to support the local economy, participate in environmental sustainability, and enjoy fresh food. Yet there’s a hidden side to farm-to-table food that as an average customer, you might not even know about. From deliberate mislabeling to out-of-season produce, there have been several shady practices found at restaurants claiming to be authentic and locally sourced. It’s incredibly easy to pretend farm-to-table food came straight from the producer, or that certain cuts of meats are better than they are, given the lax regulation of federal guidelines for culinary establishments.
Is food properly advertised?
Recently, the Tampa Bay Times sent a food critic to investigate the truth behind the food advertised as organic, non-GMO and locally sourced from various Floridian restaurants. It turns out that we, as consumers, can’t tell the distinction between real farm-to-table fare and what’s falsely labeled as such—we just want the feeling that we bought into the good cause of environmentally sustainable food. As a modern consumer, we expect all foods to be in season constantly, to be able to have strawberries in winter without thinking of the actual philosophy of farm-to-table. Not only that, this kind of locally grown food is really expensive, with low production and an emphasis on quality. It raises the prices of meals because of scarcity and restauranteurs only being able to source from a select, small pool; unlike most establishments that can choose the lowest price for the same consistent ingredient mix which is boosted by chemical production.
What does this mean for prices?
We don’t want to face the reality that we demand cheap prices for utmost quality, often in impossible standards. Additionally, a big problem is the lack of local farmers in the United States, given how the agriculture industry has been largely taken over by the government. Vendors who set up at farmers markets are often resellers who buy up leftover produce from wholesale markets, after major grocery stores or restaurant suppliers have picked the best crop. This leftover produce is far from local—it could be from Mexico or trucked into Arizona. The USDA has strict regulations on the term “organic” but doesn’t look at terms like “local, natural or sustainable.” So even though some restaurant suppliers may be getting fresh produce, an equal amount of restaurants are buying from farmers markets who sell produce that isn’t local at all. So much for supporting your community of resident growers.
How do restaurants come into play?
That’s also if the farm-to-table restaurant you visit actually buys from a verified restaurant supplier of organic, non-GMO produce. Frequently, because we expect out-of-season food to be constantly available, restaurants will resort to mislabeling or lying on their menu about the true origins of what’s on your plate.
Out of a number of restaurants the Tampa Bay Times reviewed, ten were found to be making false claims about where they got their produce and the quality of their meat. For example, Boca Kitchen Bar Market was found to lie on their chalkboard menu, with no connection to their supposed fish supplier Captain Kirk Morgan. The chef at Boca Kitchen Bar Market had simply exchanged business cards with Captain Kirk Morgan, never bought fish from them and put the supplier on their menu when the restaurant’s fish was actually sourced from somewhere else. Another restaurant, Jackson’s Bistro had labeled their beef with the USDA label of prime, stating it was the highest quality when in reality, it had included pork under this legally defined label—which isn’t USDA graded at all.
Finding the truth behind farm-to-table food, and navigating the murky waters of labeling can be tricky. As a consumer, you can be informed by understanding what produce is actually in season, and by reading labels. It helps to look up whether or not a farm is still in business, because some farm-to-table restaurants have been found to claim they source local from a certain place that doesn’t exist anymore. The restaurant then simply makes up their supply chain deficiency by buying produce that might not be organic or non-GMO to supplement their dishes. It’s hard to find authentic farm-to-table, but when you do the struggle is worth it. Know you have to pay steeper prices, but this luxury will truly pay back into the local community and sustainable food economy.
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