ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
I was afraid this headline would come up sooner or later. Farm to table is a lie. At least it often is in Tampa, Fla. Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley has investigated this and just published the results. Laura, thank you for joining us. I'm sorry it has to be under such circumstances.
LAURA REILEY: (Laughter) I'm happy to be here nonetheless.
SHAPIRO: OK. We've all seen restaurants that list the local farms where their ingredients came from. You fact checked dozens of these menus, called the farms, and what did you find?
REILEY: Quite a bit of fraud. You know, some of it is outright, whopping lies, and some of it is negligence. And some of it is confusion. But there's an awful lot of shake in the system, and many of those local greens misted with unicorn tears are something else entirely.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) But I mean, like, there were dozens of restaurants making these claims. And you called and fact checked these dozens of restaurants. And it wasn't like 50-50, some were accurate; some were not.
REILEY: Yeah. It was fairly remarkable. I think that there's a powerful incentive to tell a story. We all want that story. It's a big part of why we go out to eat. It's a kind of - it's our entertainment, and part of that entertainment is the mythology about the provenance of the food. And if a restaurant can give you that story about that pork chop that lived a happy and delightful life beginning to the very last minute, that's great. And sometimes they're actually serving you commodity pork.
SHAPIRO: I mean, it's not just commodity pork replacing the heritage pork chop. It's, like, what claims to be Florida blue crab actually coming from India.
REILEY: Yeah. We did some DNA testing, which was - it's always illuminating when you do that. And unfortunately it's much easier to do on seafood than it is on other kinds of meat. And then there are no ways of testing if someone says these are organic, local heirloom tomatoes, and in fact, they're, you know, Mexican tomatoes irradiated. There are no genetic markers or tests that will easily give you that information.
SHAPIRO: Except that a lot of restaurants said, these are happy, organic heirloom tomatoes from Down the Street Happy Tomato Farm. And you called Down the Street Happy Tomato Farm, and their voicemail said, we've been out of business for three years, or, we're not growing tomatoes this time of year.
REILEY: Absolutely. Well, I think that what got me interested in this topic is, I've done a lot of agriculture writing in the past couple years in Florida and met with a lot of farmers. And they've all groused about this a little bit - you know, that they're used as billboards or as kind of the calling card at these restaurants. You know, a restaurant may buy from them once or twice and then phase them out but keep them on the chalkboard or on the menu.
SHAPIRO: You're reporting was all in Tampa, but is there any reason to believe this problem is local to this part of Florida and not just a widespread national phenomenon?
REILEY: Oh, I'm sure it's a widespread phenomenon. And I think it is kind of an arms escalation. In some ways it may go back to the fact that maybe 10 years ago when we started getting real farmers markets, we as consumers started being able to buy great produce and great and heritage meats and those kinds of things. So it's almost like restaurants needed to up the ante and claim even more extravagant, boutique products on their menu, things that we as consumers couldn't buy ourselves. So I understand why some of these claims are being made.
SHAPIRO: You're pretty open in this article about the fact that you've written favorable restaurant reviews for some of these places that claimed to farm-to-table philosophy and didn't stick to it. Is this reporting, in a way, a kind of mea culpa?
REILEY: Oh, I'm embarrassed. You know, some of the places I've given the highest reviews in the past year and, you know, kind of swooned over their farm-to-table stuff - yeah, I feel duped.
SHAPIRO: But it was still good food. I mean, you liked what you ate, right?
REILEY: No doubt, but if I went into it with the idea that I was paying a premium for a particular local food or sustainably raised food and I got something else, it really doesn't matter how good it tasted.
SHAPIRO: Laura Reiley is a food critic for the Tampa Bay Times. And I want to say thank you for lifting the veil from my eyes, but I might have been happier when I didn't know the reality, to be honest.
REILEY: (Laughter) Me too. I'm right there with you.
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