Restaurants spouting a "local, seasonal" mantra are so ubiquitous these days it's become downright cliché. But even if you're sick of listening to servers give five-minute spiels about humanely raised pork and lovingly picked lettuce, it's still nice to know the food on your plate came from a local purveyor and not an industrial farm thousands of miles away. Except, of course, when it really didn't.
A new investigative report by the Tampa Bay Times reveals what some diners have probably already suspected: Restaurants claiming to serve local meat and produce are sometimes plating lies instead. Food critic Laura Reiley took an exhaustive dive into Tampa Bay-area restaurants that make "farm-to-table" claims, checking up on supposed purveyors via phone calls and farm visits and even having seafood DNA tested to learn its true origins. Her takeaway? "Just about everyone tells tales. Sometimes they are whoppers, sometimes they are fibs borne of negligence or ignorance, and sometimes they are nearly harmless omissions or 'greenwashing.'"
Some specific instances of deception Reiley uncovered: A restaurant called Mermaid Tavern claims to make cheese curds in-house (they "arrive in a box"), use wild Alaskan pollock for fish and chips (it's actually frozen Chinese fish treated with preservatives), and serve wild-caught Florida shrimp (the crustaceans are imported from India). Another restaurant, the high-end Maritana Grille, was busted while deceiving customers about the provenance of its pork and produce, with local purveyors saying they hadn't sold to the restaurant in months — or ever.
Of course, it goes beyond just lying about where carrots come from: There's a deeper issue at play here and that's one of supply and demand. Consumers and restaurants are demanding responsibly sourced proteins in quantities that producers can't possibly keep up with, and the temptation to tell customers what they want to hear seemingly proves too great for some chefs and restaurateurs to resist.
Certainly anyone with a healthy sense of skepticism ought to realize that most menus probably aren't telling the whole truth: A recent scandal that rocked the Washington, DC restaurant scene involved a pricey chain called Fig & Olive that the Washington City Paper discovered was serving diners pre-made, frozen food prepared in a central commissary kitchen. Meanwhile, an investigation by Inside Edition found a third of restaurants visited were serving lobster bulked up with — or completely replaced by — cheaper fish substitutes.