At first, I thought nothing of it. I had just landed a new job, and it was only my second day. And so when I was asked to peel the stickers off apples received that morning I went about the task as if it really mattered. I was really going to impress my new bosses with my apple-de-stickering, I thought. The job done, I asked for my next assignment.
Photo by Flickr user Kelowna09
“Oh, make a little sign,” I was told, “with these markers and some paper and that popsicle stick. You know, make it look like an apple cart from the olden days.” Then the kicker came – write “Organic Fuji Apples” on the label. What? The apples I had just been man-handling were about as organic as a McDonald’s Apple Pie. The box and stickers I had just removed clearly revealed their non-organic origins. Oh yes, I was told, they were organic, they were just labeled wrong. You can’t always trust labels, can you?
This was years ago, at a little deli that was much loved in its neighborhood for its homemade pasta that was cut to order for each customer. Except the “homemade” pasta wasn’t “homemade” at all — it was in fact ordered and delivered from a factory across town.
Other red flags started to appear. The owners would come in with bags from Trader Joes filled with products that we would unwrap and re-label with exotic sounding names. “I’ve learned what to call things in order to sell them,” I was told.
True to form, a few days later the rest of those apples that hadn’t sold were cut up and cooked into an “Organic Granny Smith Apple Pie,” made (of course) with conventional Fuji’s.
Over the years it has become increasingly apparent that this is not an isolated event. It is happening all the time, every day, at the restaurants and cafes that we all eat at. At the same time, the trend towards local, sustainable, and organic foods is ever increasing. As a response, chefs often write some variation of the now obligatory sentence at the bottom of each menu: “We use organic, local, and sustainable sources for all our products, when possible.” And here lies a serious conundrum: the seasonal and uncertain nature of organic, sustainable food means that some wiggle room is necessary to allow for variation in harvest and availability. Yet chefs can use this wiggle room to do nothing at all, or, worse yet, to cheat the system directly.
“The temptation is always there for some low-life chef to exploit the public because one can sell ‘organic’ produce at a much higher price than ‘non-organic,’” says Alex Ong chef/owner of San Francisco’s Beetlenut Peju Wu. Jason Kwon, chef/owner of Joshu-ya Brasserie in Berkeley, agrees. “As a restaurateur, everyone wants in on the sustainable food topic,” he says. “A lot of my cooks work second jobs at restaurants that promote organic vegetables but they probably buy one box of organic tomatoes each month, and that’s all that they do.” Kwon says that these establishments are hurting consumers and also other local sustainable businesses.
The irony of this organic-deception is that organic food is in fact very clearly regulated at the federal level by the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 and the national organic standards published in 2000. And as a result, most consumers now know that organic produce needs to be certified by a third-party agency. These agencies certify farms that are following the organic regulations, significantly reducing fraud in the industry.
But what about fraud at restaurants?
In California, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) is one of the largest and oldest certifying agencies in the US. It has been inspecting and certifying organic farms since 1973. But “CCOF doesn’t certify any restaurants,” says Robin Boyle, CCOF’s marketing director. And one of the reasons is that restaurants are excluded from certification requirements.
“Retail food establishments that process and sell organic foods at the same site — like restaurants — are excluded from certification,” explains Gwendolyn Wyard of the Organic Trade Association, a trade body that represents the organic industry in the US and Canada. “However, they are not excluded from keeping records that verify their organic claims,” she adds. And this, she says, is a very serious issue that most restaurants don’t even know about. “They need to be able to verify with their records what quantities of organic food are produced from organic ingredients at their establishment, and have to retain and maintain these records on site for no less than three years.”
So every restaurant everywhere in the US that lists the word “organic” on the menu has to be able to back up that claim. I asked Wyard what a restaurant would have to do to if it printed that same menu statement from above: “We use organic, local, and sustainable sources for all our products, when possible.” Her answer: “Listing ‘organic’ on the menu ‘when possible’ would mean that the restaurant would need to keep records for all organic purchases and also they would need records to show specifically what efforts they are making to buy organic food. They would also need to specifically define ‘when possible.’”
Wyard lists a few of the other requirements: invoices for organic foods have to contain a specific “lot number” that matched to the specific box of food in the restaurant, and restaurants have to have separate storage facilities dedicated to organic vs. non-organic products to avoid “co-mingling or contamination.” All this revolves around training, and most restaurants have no idea they need to comply with these rules, she says.
After speaking with Wyard I realized things were even more complicated than I had thought. Not only is there intentional fraud around organic and sustainable produce, but also unintentional violations of national organic regulations on top of that. It’s no surprise, then, that some chefs try to avoid the organic issue altogether while still offering excellent food.
Chef/owner Michael Dotson from Martins West in Redwood City, CA, says: “I’m more a proponent of sustainable produce than organic. It comes down to the certification when it’s organic. When you work with farmers that are sustainable, you have that promise if you know them. But if you’re certified organic you can still be a crappy farmer.” Chef Ong of Beetlenut Peju Wu adds: “No one knows how big the problem is, and I think one of the best ways to avoid this issue is to talk to as many chefs as possible and to find out who and where they buy their produce from. Then get to know those farmers and support them."
Eco-Chef Aaron French has been the chef of The Sunny Side Café in Albany, CA, since its opening in January 2004, and is the author of The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook. He is studying Sustainable Business at UC Berkeley, has a Masters in Ecology and Systematics, and has been cited as one of the “11 Influential Eco-Chefs Who Are Changing the Way We Think About Food” by EcoSalon.