If you dine out regularly, chances are you’ve seen “farm-to-table,” “locally sourced,” and “sustainable” options on the menu. But are those claims true? Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley wanted to find out. And she discovered that often these labels are bogus. In one case, a meal advertised as veal schnitzel may have been frozen pork chops and sliced pork.
In the aftermath of her investigation, several restaurants changed their menus and chalkboards to reflect true food sourcing. I spoke with Reiley about the investigation and how what’s going on at Tampa Bay restaurants might be happening at places near you.
Some highlights from our conversation:
There isn’t really much value in the term “farm-to-table” anymore.
Reiley: It’s a term that I think is bordering on bankrupt. I know a bunch of restaurants here that are doing everything right, that are really working through local purveyors, that work closely with local farmers and get all their seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, etc., who really object to the term “farm-to-table.” They haven’t figured out a new term that they like better, but they bristle a bit when you call them that.
What it’s like getting Sysco, a large-scale distributor, to talk.
Reiley: Sysco is a hermetically sealed box. They do not tell anything. If you try to investigate, call a local distributor, call a local branch of Sysco, they immediately refer you to corporate. It was very hard for U.S. foods and Sysco. They don’t want to reveal. They know precisely what’s happening — that many of their buyers, basically, the restaurants — are sourcing through Sysco and saying they’re buying from local farms. They have a lot of incentive to obfuscate.
This isn’t just Tampa Bay. It’s indicative of a larger issue.
Reiley: Shortly after the story went out there, I was getting a hundred emails an hour. And half of them, each hour, were from people in Seattle, in Portland, in Southern California, in the Finger Lakes of New York, from all over the country. … This wasn’t people saying, “I’m so sorry things are lousy in Tampa Bay, and you have all those bad apples.” It was people everywhere saying, “We know this is happening here.” I think it’s a national phenomenon, definitely.