'Farm To Fable'? Tampa Probe Finds Many Restaurants Lie About Sourcing | KUOW News and Information

'Farm To Fable'? Tampa Probe Finds Many Restaurants Lie About Sourcing

Apr 14, 2016
Originally published on May 18, 2016 6:13 pm

The farm-to-table trend has exploded recently. Across the country, menus proudly boast chicken raised by local farmers, pork from heritage breed pigs, vegetables grown from heirloom varieties. These restaurants are catering to diners who increasingly want to know where their food comes from — and that it is ethically, sustainably sourced.

But are these eateries just serving up lies?

Laura Reiley, the food critic for the Tampa Bay Times, wanted to find out. So she undertook a rigorous two-month investigation of Tampa's farm-to-table restaurants, tracking down their sourcing claims. Many of them turned out to be bogus.

Reiley spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about her investigation, titled "Farm to Fable." An edited transcript of their conversation is below.

You fact-checked dozens of these menus. You called the farms. And what did you find?

Many of those local greens misted with unicorn tears are something else entirely.

I think that there's a powerful incentive to tell a story. We all want that story — it's a big part of why we go out to eat. If a restaurant can give you that story about that pork chop that lived a happy and delightful life from the beginning to its very last minute, that's great. And sometimes they're actually serving you commodity pork.

And it's not just that — it's like, what claims to be Florida blue crab actually coming from India.

We did some DNA testing. It's always illuminating when you do that. Unfortunately, it's much easier to do that on seafood than it is on meat.

And there's no way of testing if someone says these are organic, local heirloom tomatoes, and actually they're Mexican tomatoes, irradiated. There are no genetic markers or tests that will tell you that.

What got me interested in this topic is I've done a lot of agriculture writing in the past couple of years in Florida, and met with a lot of farmers. 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.

You talked to one pork producer who walked you through the finances of raising a hog, slaughtering it for meat. And the price of that pork chop on the plate would have been something like $40.

I think that we as Americans have really come to expect inexpensive food. 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.

You confronted a lot of chefs about this, and a lot of them gave you the same answer.

[They said] "I guess that should come off the chalkboard."

There were plenty of people who were honestly surprised to find something was still on the chalkboard or still on their menu many months after they'd purchased that product, and many others that were just caught red-handed.

Your reporting was all done in Tampa, but is there any reason to believe that this problem is limited to this part of Florida?

Oh, I'm sure it's a widespread phenomenon.

And I think it is a kind of arms escalation. In some ways, it may go back to the fact that maybe 10 years ago, when we started getting real farmers markets, we as consumers started being able to buy great produce and great heritage meats and those kinds of things. So it's almost like restaurants needed to up the ante and claim even more extravagant boutique products on their menus — things that we, as consumers, couldn't buy ourselves. So I understand why some of these claims are being made.

So if I, as a consumer, want to dine out responsibly and want to support local agriculture without a huge carbon footprint — what should I do?

You've got to ask questions. I mean, I don't know how comfortable I'd feel at a restaurant asking to see their invoices. But I think we're going to have to move in that direction where ... there's a little more consumer activism in terms of demanding more transparency in the provenance of where we're getting our food.

When you see those claims on the menu — naturally raised, or heritage breeds — I think that they should raise a red flag, and you should feel free to ask more questions.

Is there a way to do it without being that obnoxious kind of diner who is straight out of the Portlandia sketch?

I think price point should definitely be an indicator — if it's too good to be true, it probably isn't true. If you see that $10 lobster roll, something is fishy.

You're pretty open in this article about the fact that you've written favorable restaurant reviews for some of these places that claimed farm-to-table philosophy and didn't stick to it. Is this reporting in a way a mea culpa?

Absolutely. I'm embarrassed. Some of the places I've given the highest review in the past year and kind of swooned over their farm-to-table stuff — I feel duped.

If I went into it with the idea that I was paying a premium for a particular local food or a sustainably raised food and I got something else, it really doesn't matter how it tasted.

One of the things that surprised me in this article is that a lot of the chefs who really do adhere to the farm-to-table ethos don't wear it on their sleeves.

I think there's a lot of farm-to-table fatigue among chefs. You know, it's like the term foodie itself. It starts to take on a kind of bankrupt, yucky demeanor after so many people have misused it.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I was afraid this headline would come up sooner or later. Farm to table is a lie. At least it often is in Tampa, Fla. Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley has investigated this and just published the results. Laura, thank you for joining us. I'm sorry it has to be under such circumstances.

LAURA REILEY: (Laughter) I'm happy to be here nonetheless.

SHAPIRO: OK. We've all seen restaurants that list the local farms where their ingredients came from. You fact checked dozens of these menus, called the farms, and what did you find?

REILEY: Quite a bit of fraud. You know, some of it is outright, whopping lies, and some of it is negligence. And some of it is confusion. But there's an awful lot of shake in the system, and many of those local greens misted with unicorn tears are something else entirely.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) But I mean, like, there were dozens of restaurants making these claims. And you called and fact checked these dozens of restaurants. And it wasn't like 50-50, some were accurate; some were not.

REILEY: Yeah. It was fairly remarkable. I think that there's a powerful incentive to tell a story. We all want that story. It's a big part of why we go out to eat. It's a kind of - it's our entertainment, and part of that entertainment is the mythology about the provenance of the food. And if a restaurant can give you that story about that pork chop that lived a happy and delightful life beginning to the very last minute, that's great. And sometimes they're actually serving you commodity pork.

SHAPIRO: I mean, it's not just commodity pork replacing the heritage pork chop. It's, like, what claims to be Florida blue crab actually coming from India.

REILEY: Yeah. We did some DNA testing, which was - it's always illuminating when you do that. And unfortunately it's much easier to do on seafood than it is on other kinds of meat. And then there are no ways of testing if someone says these are organic, local heirloom tomatoes, and in fact, they're, you know, Mexican tomatoes irradiated. There are no genetic markers or tests that will easily give you that information.

SHAPIRO: Except that a lot of restaurants said, these are happy, organic heirloom tomatoes from Down the Street Happy Tomato Farm. And you called Down the Street Happy Tomato Farm, and their voicemail said, we've been out of business for three years, or, we're not growing tomatoes this time of year.

REILEY: Absolutely. Well, I think that what got me interested in this topic is, I've done a lot of agriculture writing in the past couple years in Florida and met with a lot of farmers. And they've all groused about this a little bit - you know, that they're used as billboards or as kind of the calling card at these restaurants. You know, a restaurant may buy from them once or twice and then phase them out but keep them on the chalkboard or on the menu.

SHAPIRO: You're reporting was all in Tampa, but is there any reason to believe this problem is local to this part of Florida and not just a widespread national phenomenon?

REILEY: Oh, I'm sure it's a widespread phenomenon. And I think it is kind of an arms escalation. In some ways it may go back to the fact that maybe 10 years ago when we started getting real farmers markets, we as consumers started being able to buy great produce and great and heritage meats and those kinds of things. So it's almost like restaurants needed to up the ante and claim even more extravagant, boutique products on their menu, things that we as consumers couldn't buy ourselves. So I understand why some of these claims are being made.

SHAPIRO: You're pretty open in this article about the fact that you've written favorable restaurant reviews for some of these places that claimed to farm-to-table philosophy and didn't stick to it. Is this reporting, in a way, a kind of mea culpa?

REILEY: Oh, I'm embarrassed. You know, some of the places I've given the highest reviews in the past year and, you know, kind of swooned over their farm-to-table stuff - yeah, I feel duped.

SHAPIRO: But it was still good food. I mean, you liked what you ate, right?

REILEY: No doubt, but if I went into it with the idea that I was paying a premium for a particular local food or sustainably raised food and I got something else, it really doesn't matter how good it tasted.

SHAPIRO: Laura Reiley is a food critic for the Tampa Bay Times. And I want to say thank you for lifting the veil from my eyes, but I might have been happier when I didn't know the reality, to be honest.

REILEY: (Laughter) Me too. I'm right there with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.