Menu Fabrications

From wine sweetened with lead in ancient Rome to swill milk produced in 1800s New York, the history of fraudulent food is littered with substandard products that swindled customers out of money, made them sick, or, in the worst scenarios, led to death. Today, food fraud is easy to find in restaurants, where a customer might be served a cheaper substitute for what’s actually listed on the menu. It may seem like a simple way to cut costs, but substituting ingredients without letting customers know can put their health in jeopardy, damage your restaurant’s reputation, and cost you financially.

Less Than Local

In April 2016, Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley completed a thorough, investigative piece detailing food fraud in the Tampa Bay area, where some restaurant owners claim to buy from local providers that, it turns out, never sold to them. California’s farm-to-table fraud is the same story: restaurants claim to use local, organic produce from farms in the area, but don’t actually buy from them. With farm-to-table concepts flooding the market and consumers remaining interested in the sustainability of the foods they eat, it’s no surprise that many restaurants want to benefit from the movement without spending the capital necessary to procure locally produced ingredients. Thus, sneaky owners greenwash their restaurants, profiting from the idea of regional sourcing without supporting the local industry.

Swimming in Lies

While fraud in farm-to-table restaurants might be a more recent revelation, seafood fraud has been a known issue for much longer. This year, Inside Edition investigated restaurants using seafood substitutes – including langostino and whiting – in addition to or instead of lobster. Industry publication SeaFood Business pondered the difference between langostino and lobster back in 2006.

An Oceana seafood study conducted from 2010 to 2012 found that of 1,215 samples, 33 percent were mislabeled nationwide, including as much as 74 percent in sushi venues and 38 percent in other restaurants. Some of these were harmless, like tilapia being sold as red snapper, but many places sold escolar as white tuna. Nicknamed “the ex-lax fish” and also labeled as butterfish or oilfish, escolar is a snake mackerel that has been banned in culinary use in Japan and Italy for the unpleasant to severe gastrointestinal issues it can cause.

Oceana’s study found the highest occurrence of mislabeling at sushi venues, so it might not come as a surprise that what’s in your favorite sushi roll probably isn’t real crab. Often called imitation crab or crab sticks, the surimi typically used in California rolls is made from several fish that are ground up and finished off with artificial additives. It is often used in sushi in place of crab, although menus may not clarify if the restaurant serves crab meat or the imitation.

Kobe Conspiracy

If you’re more interested in red meat than seafood, you might still have a beef with menu mislabeling. Kobe beef, imported from Japan, is considered a superior – and expensive – offering, but according to Inside Edition, as of April 2016, only eight American restaurants are certified to serve it. That hasn’t stopped hundreds of restaurants across the country from listing it on their menus and charging the high prices associated with the beef. Any restaurant selling Kobe beef should be able to provide proof of its status, which is given out by the Kobe Beef Association to certified restaurants.

Avoiding Artifice

Cheaper ingredient substitutions happen for a number of reasons: because a restaurant ran out of what was listed on the menu and hasn’t printed new ones, isn’t aware of a hiccup in its supply chain that led to a different ingredient being provided, or is willfully misleading its customers about what is being offered because a higher price can be charged for the alleged ingredient. Although honest mistakes happen, substituting ingredients and not letting customers know about it is, no matter how you slice it, foodservice fraud. If recent investigations are any indication, it happens more often than we might like to believe. As a consumer, knowing what produce is in season can help you realize when something on the menu might not be as fresh or local as it seems. If you have doubts about the authenticity of an ingredient (such as “fresh, wild-caught salmon” when you’re in a landlocked state), don’t be afraid to ask the waiter for clarification or reassurance.

For chefs and restaurant owners, remember that misrepresenting your ingredients can lead to violations and fines. Most ingredients won’t be available year-round, and adjusting the menu to reflect what’s actually available will give your restaurant credibility. You should also avoid advertising a local source’s product unless you really are using it.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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