A Table Full of Fraud

If you log on to the website of the restaurant in which I currently work, the first words that jump out at you are local, modern, authentic. They describe themselves as a modern Italian restaurant that uses the freshest locally sourced ingredients, whose chefs are respectful to Italian cooking methods while providing their guests the most bold and authentic flavors of Italy. They also invite everyone to join them every Sunday for a contemporary Italian Brunch filled with everyone’s favorite breakfast classics and house-made mimosas. And of course, everything on the menu is advertised as being Farm to Table.

Eating at a restaurant is a matter of trust, and if you spend any time in them at all you’ll soon come to the conclusion that you are regularly being lied to. If you order the Maine lobster, the locally farmed pork loin or the organic vegetable lasagna, how can you be assured that you’re actually receiving what is advertised? The simple answer is – you can’t. Restaurant patrons are placed in the unenviable position of having to trust that either the restaurateur or corporation they purchase their food from is telling the truth about the food they’re selling – a truth that is all-too-often shrouded in deception and unverifiable to the average consumer.

One of the most fraudulent phrases the restaurant industry has pooped out in the last few years is “farm to table.” The farm to table movement has its origins in the hippie culture of the 1960s. It initially began in so-called progressive cities such as Berkeley, California and Austin, Texas and has spread into the cultural mainstream over the last 10 years or so. According to a recent survey by The National Restaurant Association, 57 percent of consumers said the availability of local food is a deciding factor in where to dine out. Another 68 percent said they’re more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced items.

The problem is, farm to table means absolutely nothing outside of being a clever marketing term. No government regulation is required to label food farm to table, and terms like “local” and “sustainable” can have different definitions depending on the motivations of any particular restaurant owner. And at its core, isn’t all food inherently farm to table to begin with? The entire food chain – be it protein or vegetable – essentially originates from some form of farming, whether outdoor or hydroponic, and ultimately ends up on our collective tables for consumption. So championing food as being superior because it’s farm to table is a little like recommending oxygen that’s derived from photosynthesis.

“Sourcing locally” is about as disingenuous a description as you’ll ever see on a restaurant menu. The truth is, most restaurants purchase their food from a handful of the same purveyors who source their product in bulk from wherever they can buy it cheapest throughout the world, with the two largest of these distributors being Sysco and US Foods. Genuine local sourcing of food would require restaurant owners to visit farms and establish relationships with farmers – something they have neither the time nor energy to do. Plus, most farmers don’t have either the infrastructure or capacity to engage in their own sales, marketing and delivery.

Which opens the door for misleading menus.

I worked several years at a large, national Italian-themed restaurant chain that specialized in family-style portions that were marketed as being made from scratch daily by a cadre of culinary specialists who faithfully recreated recipes lovingly coaxed out of Italian mothers, grandmothers and aunts. Twice a week a Sysco semi-trailer would pull up to our loading dock and deliver multiple pallets of pre-packaged marinara sauce, frozen fish, cryovac-sealed steaks, canned vegetables, frozen pre-made pasta as well as various bulk spices and whatever else was necessary to concoct granny’s authentic recipes. The culinary specialists who combined all this stuff together in the prep kitchen were in actuality minimum wage warriors who faithfully followed the sugar-and-salt laden recipes designed by corporate so-called culinarians several states removed from us. The only thing scratch that ever occurred in that kitchen was when a prep cook had an itch and needed to address it appropriately.

Most national restaurant chains utilize their economy of scale to negotiate bulk pricing with national distributors which allows them to keep their food costs in check. There is, however, little or no government oversight regarding the genuineness of how they market the ingredients they buy and resell. So the same pre-packaged marinara sauce that gets churned out in a factory somewhere in the Midwest can be marketed as locally-sourced and organic in California while simultaneously being labeled homemade in Texas. Legally, you can advertise a fish selection as fresh if it was flash-frozen when it was taken out of the water – which adds a entirely new take on the term bait and switch. When you see the term “free range chicken” on a menu, it doesn’t mean anything. There really is no difference between free range and regular chicken – the USDA says you can call them free range if you give them access to the outdoors and slightly more space per chicken to roam. However, if you visit one of the farms you will see that the free range chickens, while they have a door to go outside, stay huddled up in packs inside, identical to the regular chickens. Both free range and regular chickens are fed the same diet and fully raised for slaughter in just five weeks. As always, it’s about the money. If I can purchase something at $1.99 per pound and sell it as is for $2.10, I make a 11 cent profit. But if I repackage it and call it humanely raised, GMO and antibiotic free, I can sell it for $2.40 per pound, thus raising my profit to 41 cents per pound.

Another culinary scam used by restaurants is the proliferation and promotion of truffle oil as an ingredient. This is essentially a cheap additive used to elevate the perception and price of mostly common dishes such as soups and French fries. Truffle oil has as many truffles in it as the average Donald Trump tweet has truths – which is none. Truffle oil is essentially a chemical, entirely manufactured in laboratories using the same process as perfume. The most common source of “natural truffle” flavor in the oil is a chemically altered form of formaldehyde called 2,4-dithiapentane. Famous chef and TV host Gordon Ramsay has called truffle oil, “One of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known to chefs.”

And what of those increasingly popular champagne brunches sometimes accompanied by the endless trough of bottomless mimosas? To quote Donnie Brasco…Fuhgeddaboudit. Finding real champagne on a champagne brunch is as likely as Jared Fogle being featured in another Subway commercial. According to Wine Spectator magazine, approximately 99 percent of Americans are under the perception that Champagne is a sparkling wine that is produced in a specific region of France. That, however, is incorrect. It is now perfectly legal for U.S. winemakers to label their sparkling wines as champagne with no oversight whatsoever. So the restaurateur who purchased a bulk buy on numerous cases of swill at two dollars a bottle can pawn it off as the champagne you’re supposedly washing your bacon and eggs down with.

One of the easiest menu items for a restaurant to swindle you with is seafood. That’s because by the time it ends up on your plate it resembles nothing like it did when it was caught and is usually slathered with sauce or other accoutrements. So there’s a better than average chance that your Wild Caught Salmon actually came from a farm and was pumped full of antibiotics, your Red Snapper is actually Tilapia and your Grouper is really Asian Catfish. A new study from researchers at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University checked the DNA of fish ordered at 26 Los Angeles sushi restaurants from 2012 through 2015, and found that 47 percent of sushi was mislabeled. So if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck…It’s probably a cat.

Part of the problem is that the USDA and FDA don’t hold restaurant businesses to the same standard as they do the grocery industry. If you purchase a USDA Prime Ribeye from Whole Foods, you can legally be assured that’s exactly what you’re getting. But the minute you set foot in a restaurant, that’s where the assurances end. Any restaurant can get away with labeling their items with enticing adjectives such as Prime, Cage-Free, Angus, Hormone-Free, Grass Fed or Organic without being required to empirically back up these claims. Granted, it’s a risky proposition on their part to engage in this deception – especially if they get caught doing so – but how many consumers realistically require a paper trail evidence from their waiter that the chicken cordon bleu sitting in front of them never spent any of its past existence in a cage?

Even with packaged foods, deception runs as rampant as a right wing Supreme Court Justice attempting to mask his disdain for Roe v. Wade. Grated Parmesan cheese has been shown to contain up to nine percent wood pulp to prevent clumping, burned sawdust combined with water can be added to certain foods to give them a smoky flavor, silicon dioxide – sand – is an ingredient found in powdered foods to prevent them from clumping, human hair and duck feathers are used to make L-Cysteine which is an ingredient used in mass-produced breads, Shellac – “confectioner’s glaze” – is used to make candy shiny and is made from bug secretion, and vanilla flavoring is often created using beaver urine. All of which ends up on your plate awaiting your willing and unknowing consumption.

Just because your orange juice is labeled being fresh-squeezed on the menu doesn’t mean someone lovingly crafted the contents of your glass to order. Instead, it more than likely means that the distributor picked the fruit, machine-squeezed it that afternoon or the following day, froze it, warehoused it until an order for it was processed, shipped it and marketed it as fresh-squeezed where it now awaits your palate. And at that point, who is ultimately responsible for the deception – the distributor or the restaurateur? Or both? And though there are such things as Truth In Menu Laws, the majority of overworked officials placed in charge of enforcing them end up being more concerned with sanitation of the food prep areas they oversee rather than the food itself. That’s because the focus is on “food that’s fit for consumption,” and this focus is justified by examples such as mass food-poisoning outbreaks like the recent Chipotle E. coli fiasco that sickened customers in multiple states and the salmonella outbreak at high-end chain Fig & Olive. From that perspective, whether there’s one scrap of actual Angus in your burger seems relatively unimportant.

Unfortunately, we seem to have reached a certain point of no return with the way our food is marketed and presented to us whenever we go out to eat. As long as restaurants are legally allowed to perpetuate deceptive organic myths designed primarily to separate patrons from their money, the one thing we’re all destined to consume all-too-often is fiction and fraud. As always, education is the best defense against deception, and it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide the extent of the relationship we choose to have with the food we eat.

Terry Everton is a cartoonist and “wage slave.” Read other articles by Terry, or visit Terry's website.