Just about every menu offers fertile ground for imposters, from the lower-cost tilapia posing as higher-priced grouper to the honey labeled as pure but laced with high fructose corn syrup. And what about the imported hothouse tomatoes passing themselves off as local heirloom varieties?
“Food fraud is a major problem,” says Chris Coleman, executive chef of Stoke in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Food falsehoods cost the industry up to $15 billion each year, taking up to 15 percent out of annual restaurant sales, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. No one wants to get conned by shady suppliers offering false information about the provenance of an ingredient or even worse, a fraudulent or deceptive claim that damages your restaurant’s reputation.
Protect yourself by staying vigilant with these common sense strategies.
The importance of chef-supplier relationships is a tried-and-true adage that bears repeating.
“You have to buy from people you know and trust,” says Coleman. “It’s a lot easier to be misled when you place an order online (from an unknown source) and it shows up on a truck the next day and gets wheeled into the kitchen.”
Developing relationships with all suppliers, from national foodservice distributors, such as US Foods, to specialty food purveyors, provides opportunities to ask questions directly and increases the likelihood the purchases will meet expectations.
Scheduling meetings can be inconvenient and atime suck, Coleman admits, but there’s no substitute mfor developing trust through face-to-face interactions.
PASS ON PARTS
Purchasing whole fish makes it harder to pass off pangasius or king mackerel as grouper and, while ground coffee can be cut with leaves or roasted corn, whole coffee beans cannot be adulterated.
“Buying whole products like fish or primals is a better way to gauge freshness and quality and prevents tampering,” Coleman says. But remember the trade-off of balancing the labor required to break down large animals and scale fish versus already prepped parts.
GO TO THE SOURCE
Chef-owner Gregory Seymour headed to local farms when he began sourcing pork, milk and tomatoes for house-made fennel sausage, mozzarella and tomato sauce at Pizzeria Gregario, a 50-seat restaurant in Safety Harbor, Florida.
“People trust me to be transparent about what I’m putting on their plates and I have to do the due diligence to make sure the ingredients are the real deal,” Seymour says. Avoid those who are reluctant, however, “to throw open the pasture gates,” he says.
“Farmers who are doing the right thing will want to show it off.”
LOOK FOR SAFEGUARDS
When Pizzeria Gregario opened in 2013, Seymour worried that the olive oil labeled “Product of Italy” might be made with olives from other countries To protect against imposters, Seymour partnered with a local importer, making it clear that the product carried the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) label.
The European Union label ensures that all aspects of production, processing and preparation originate in a specific region. PDO labeling applies to a range of imported products, from olive oil and cheese to sausage and pasta.
For seafood, David Lucarelli purchases fish with gill tags. “Gill tags are difficult to counterfeit,” says Lucarelli, the executive chef at The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The tags help ensure that the tuna is tuna and the snapper is not rockfish—an important safeguard against an increasing amount of bait and switch. A 2017 University of California, Los Angeles report found that 47 percent of sushi served in area restaurants was mislabeled.
UNDERSTAND THE LIMITATIONS
If restaurant’s price points make it difficult to budget for USDA prime cuts of beef, wild-caught salmon, heirloom vegetables and artisan maple syrup, focus on making great dishes with more affordable ingredients. Avoid foods most frequently associated with fraudulent claims or limit the ones that come with safeguards to arrive at a better price point.
“Just because a food has a certain label doesn’t mean it’ll be good,” says Lucarelli. “Focus on making the best dishes you can rather than going down the rabbit hole of mislabeling.”
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
A trained palate helps. Sampling products such as extra virgin olive oil, honey, coffee and other fraudulent-prone foods helps determine if the ingredient is the real deal.
Lucarelli recommends trying the ingredient before purchasing. “You can’t source and serve the best products without trying them,” he says.
Instinct is essential for recognizing red flags in labeling and price. For example, products with a longer-than-expected shelf life might be cut with preservatives. Rock bottom pricing on premium products are almost always a sign of a fake. Taking the initiative to protect against food fraud is about more than watching out for the bottom line.
“The dining public is more informed than ever and asking a lot of questions,” says Coleman. “Getting caught committing fraud can cost a restaurant its reputation.”
WHAT IS FOOD FRAUD?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines food fraud as “the fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production.”
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based journalist and beekeeper. She would never eat (or sell) fake honey.