Fred Grimm

Farm to table? More like fraud to table

The menu at Mermaid Tavern in Tampa says the Beer-Tempura Fish-n-Chips are made from wild Alaskan pollock. The pollock is frozen, comes from China and is treated with a preservative.
The menu at Mermaid Tavern in Tampa says the Beer-Tempura Fish-n-Chips are made from wild Alaskan pollock. The pollock is frozen, comes from China and is treated with a preservative. Tampa Bay Times

The lies, anyway, were locally sourced. The food? Maybe not.

The Tampa Bay Times pretty much ruined an illusion fostered by some of our snazzier restaurants that “farm to table” suggests their meat, fish and produce has not been trucked into Florida from some distant time zone.

As it turned out, consumers have been paying premium prices for meals “made from local ingredients” — except the local ingredients come from faraway places. “Florida wild caught shrimp” has been farm-raised in India. DNA testing found “Florida blue crab” that had come from the south Pacific. Lobster rolls were lobster-free concoctions of cheap imported pollock. Veal items were actually made with pork from who knows where. Grouper sushi rolls were composed of tilapia.

Dishes that claimed to be “free of hormones, antibiotics, chemical additives, genetic modification” were not. “Grass fed” and “free range” pork and beef weren’t. Fresh local fish had been frozen and flown from afar. Restaurant patrons were eating a lot of farm-to-table dishes from farms in Mexico.

The coveted state-approved “Fresh from Florida” label on restaurant menus and food packaging could just as well signify outright fraud. It took a few weeks for the Times to find someone at the state level to address the rampant mendacity in food marketing, but last week Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam promised his agency would tighten the rules and crack down on deceptive practices. Still, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation has only 191 inspectors to police 40,000 restaurants. Changing the rules might not mean much.

Of course, the newspaper investigation only involved Tampa Bay area restaurants — local places that make a big deal out of using locally grown ingredients. So maybe Tampa Bay restaurants are sleazy aberrations. Maybe South Florida’s farm-to-table joints are feeding patrons exactly what they’re paying for.

There is, however, a suspicious precedent. Back in 2006, the same newspaper collected DNA samples from purported grouper dishes at 11 fancy restaurants in the Tampa Bay area. Six of the servings tested out as Asian catfish, tilapia, hake or pollack. That was shrugged off as a local problem until 2010, when Oceana, the ocean conservation nonprofit, used DNA testing to conduct a two-year seafood fraud study in 21 states, including Florida, and found that 33 percent of the fish had been mislabeled, with most of the fakery going down in restaurants and sushi joints. Broward and Miami-Dade counties (along with Los Angeles) tested out as the fish-fraud capital of the nation, with 38 percent of our seafood gussied up as something pricier. Our fish fraud rivaled our Medicare fraud.

South Florida restaurants had a particular penchant for mislabeling grouper, tuna and red snapper (86 percent of the tested snapper samples were actually some other fish). In 19 percent of the tests, wild or king salmon was actually Atlantic salmon.

So we have a history hereabouts that might make you suspect that Tampa Bay might not be the only Florida metropolitan area that nurtures fancy food fraud. (After the hubbub raised by the Tampa Bay Times piece, Edible South Florida, the local edition of reported that a number of leading local chefs were similarly concerned about the “crass commercialty of the farm-to-table trend.”)

Not that restaurants are any more deceptive than the rest of the food industry. The nonprofit Center for Food Safety has noted those wholesome sounding labels like “free range” and “cage free” don’t actually mean that animals were raised out in some pasture. The USDA official definition of free range only means the creature had some access to the outdoors. The feds have no restrictions at all on “free range eggs.” Meanwhile, “cage free” could apply to hens that never glimpse the outdoors.

The CFS noted that “pasture raised” has no legal definition. “While the phrase might evoke bucolic images, in actuality it can mean whatever the producer wants it to mean.” Lightly sweetened, “made with real fruit,” and multigrain all mean less than what the consumer probably assumes. There are no restrictions on use of the terms “natural” or “light” or even “pesticide free.”

We’re eating free range, all-natural, cage-free lies, straight from the farm to the table. Of course, the farm might be a few thousand miles down a very crooked road.