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What do local and natural mean when it comes to food?

- Monday, May 09, 2016

Anyone who has dined out at an even moderately fashionable restaurant in Australia recently would have observed the rush to include providence and credence information as a feature of the menu. Favoured words include "local", "natural" and "sustainable", along with the name of the district where the food was produced. The question of what these words actually mean came into sharp focus recently at a Sydney restaurant that proudly claimed that it only sourced product from sustainable, local farmers, but then proceeded to list steak on its menu that was sourced from a large feedlot located more than 1,000 kilometres away! 

Terms such as 'local', 'sustainable', 'natural', 'organic', 'biodynamic', 'pasture fed', 'paddock reared' and 'grain fed' are scattered liberally through restaurant menus and in the catalogues of providores and food service companies at present, presumably on the basis that these are attractive to consumers who will generally pay more for products that can be described using these terms. However, exactly what these terms mean is quite uncertain, and whether the products on offer can always be described using those terms (given the seasonality and uncertainty of agricultural production) is a related question.

A recent article published in the USA reported on an investigation conducted by a leading restaurant critic of the validity of some of the credence and providence claims made by fashionable restaurants located in Tampa Bay in Florida. The findings were perhaps not surprising to anyone involved in the food industry who has battled to obtain consistent, year-round produce from a specific farm or region, but disturbing nonetheless. An extract follows;

With the tagline “Local, simple and honest,” Boca Kitchen Bar Market was among the first wave of farm-to-table restaurants in Tampa Bay to make the assertion “we use local products whenever possible.” I’ve reviewed the food. My own words are right there on their website: “local, thoughtful and, most importantly, delicious.”

But I’ve been had, from the snapper down to the beef.

Boca Kitchen Bar Market opened in Riverview's Winthrop Town Centre in December 2015. The first location opened in 2012. 

But it’s not just Boca. At Pelagia Trattoria at International Plaza, the “Florida blue crab” comes from the Indian Ocean.

Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights shouts “Death to Pretenders” on its menu, but pretends cheese curds are homemade and shrimp are from Florida.

At Maritana Grille at the Loews Don CeSar, chefs claim to get pork from a farmer who doesn’t sell to them.

This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby.

More often than not, those things are fairy tales. 

Some might argue that the 'flexible' use of some of these terms does no harm, and that if consumers are silly enough to believe them and to be convinced to pay more, then so be it. However, there are several problems with this approach. The first is that at some point the flexible use of these terms crosses the line into the territory where it can be considered false advertising, which is an offence under consumer law. And just as consumers demand that advertising by banks, supermarkets and telecommunication companies accurately reflects the characteristics of the products and services they are purchasing, so the same expectations apply in relation to food. The second problem is the impact that this has on those farm businesses, restaurants and food service outlets that actually try and do the right thing, only to have their product's prices undercut by suppliers making false claims. 

The issue also extends further, as recent efforts to reform Country of Origin food labelling in Australia highlight. Australian and overseas consumers have demonstrated a willingness to pay extra for Australian products, which are perceived to be high quality and safe. Some companies have cashed in on this by using deceptive labelling on imported products or on products sourced from other nations, with a favourite trick in Australia being to cover the package liberally in Australian flags and frequent use of the word "Australian", while the actual source of the products is only listed in very small print on the back of the package.

While regulations and legislation are nearly always cumbersome and rarely achieve their stated objective, it is not out of the question that a consumer affairs minister of an Australian state government would see this issue as something on which to take a stand and to gain attention and prominence, via the introduction of laws to regulate the use of some of the above terms. 

It would seem far better for the agriculture and food industries in Australia to voluntarily reach agreement on the appropriate use of these terms via an industry code, but if past history is anything to go by, this will not happen. This is unfortunate, as it is widely recognised that providence and credence characteristics provide a real opportunity for Australian agriculture to add value, but this will be quickly eroded away if consumers in Australia and internationally lose confidence in the validity of these terms.



 
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