Monday, April 18, 2016

Rant: Can You Trust Your Favorite Restaurants?

Are restaurants lying to their customers about the sourcing of their ingredients? That question is on the minds of many due to a fascinating recent article that came out of Tampa Bay, Florida.

Links to this restaurant article have been rampant on social media. It has garnered much praise, being extolled as an excellent piece of investigative journalism. Though the article is about the restaurant scene in Tampa Bay, it touches on issues that potentially exist all over the country. Laura Reiley, the food critic for the Tampa Bay Times, wrote a three-part series on "local" food, touching on restaurants and farmers markets. The first part of the series is "At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants, you’re being fed fiction" and it has taken the restaurant scene by storm.

Ten Tampa Bay restaurants were found to have made "...false or inaccurate claims about the source of the food on their menus." Some of those restaurants claimed to have used specific local purveyors though the evidence showed those claims to be untrue. Others claimed to have used local seafood when it actually came from China. The litany of their false claims is lengthy. It raises the issue of whether local restaurants in other cities commit similar offenses. It is easy to believe that Tampa Bay is not an outlier, that it is but an example of a greater problem confronting our national restaurant industry.

However, we should be asking another initial question which seems to have been largely ignored concerning this matter. Should we trust Laura Reiley?

Plenty of people are sharing and praising her article but how many of those people have tried to verify the accuracy of her investigative report? How many have taken the time to follow-up on her claims at those Tampa Bay restaurants? The answer is that few, if any, have done so. They have simply assumed the article is accurate, praising it and passing it on to others. It is certainly interesting that people are willing to fully trust an article about people who are lying to the public.

Please know that I am not saying that Laura Reiley's article is false or inaccurate. However, we need to look at all such articles with a critical eye. That is part of her article's point, that we shouldn't just accept all claims at face value. We cannot assume their validity simply because they exist and feed into our existing biases and points of view. We need to question and scrutinize all such claims. The same way we should be doing so with restaurants that make numerous claims, including on their sourcing. If we fail to question the accuracy of Laura's article, then we fail to understand one of her major points.

There are good reasons to accept the validity of Laura Reiley's article, especially because of all the details she has provided, details which could be either readily verified or disproven with ittle effort. She didn't make vague claims which would be hard to verify or deny. She was blunt, clearly identifying the offending restaurants and providing specific examples of their misdeeds. She has placed all of her integrity on the line. I haven't seen any article yet online which disputes any of her claims. So, if we accept her article as valid, what is the next step? Which questions must now be asked?

Well, if Tampa Bay restaurants are lying about their sourcing, are there Boston restaurants which do the same? And if so, how do you determine which ones are committing that offense?

For the average person, that would be a difficult task. They don't have the time and resources to devote to verifying the claims of all these restaurants. Even many writers don't have the time and resources to devote to a thorough review of a significant number of restaurants. It is primarily print writers who possess the necessary resources for larger restaurant industry investigations. For everyone else, it often becomes merely a matter of trust.

You can either choose to trust a restaurant's sourcing claims or not. If a restaurant states they use produce from a specific local farm, who is going to visit that farm to verify the restaurant's claim? Who is going to ask the restaurant for invoices to prove their claim? Probably no one. And even if someone did this for a single restaurant, they probably wouldn't be able to invest the time and effort to do so for a dozen or more restaurants. Instead, we must rely on trust, which could be misplaced, but there isn't much else we can do.

If a writer reviews a restaurant, they generally take many sourcing issues on their face, trusting the restaurant is providing them accurate information. The same applies in related industries, such as the world of wine. You accept the producer's words as to where they source their grapes, how they produce their wines, and more. Readers don't expect them to thoroughly investigate all of those claims to prove their veracity. Maybe someone though should do so.

Questioning the veracity of such claims isn't easy and can earn you enemies. In the past, I have questioned the accuracy of claims made by a few restaurants, vendors and others. My probing led to ill will from some of those I questioned, though that never caused me to compromise my principles. I don't have the resources to engage in an investigation on the level of Lauren Reiley, but I have taken some small steps in that direction. And if enough writers did the same, the cumulative effect would benefit all of us.

Be wary of who you trust. Not everyone, especially those in business, tell the truth all the time. Restaurants who make claims about their sourcing may not be providing accurate information. I encourage writers to make an effort sometimes to delve deeper into sourcing matters, to ascertain which restaurants are being true. Kudos to Lauren Reiley for helping to ignite this discussion.

1 comment:

Frederick Wright said...

Not really that different from the rampant fish substitution scandal that swept thru the sushi industry here a couple years ago. Whenever profit motive takes precedence over values, there's going to be a temptation to compromise. Which is how we've become a nation buried under a mountain of inexpensive, but largely inedible food. Sugary yogurts thickened with gels and gums, "whole wheat" bread darkened and kept moist with high fructose corn syrup, scallops plumped artificially in a bath of sodium tripolyphosphate, and all manner of other subterfuges.