Farm to Table Labels May Be Misleading

Farm to table and locally grown is how many South Florida restaurants are marketing themselves to consumers. It's a trend that's become popular as more people want to know the source of the food they eat. But some farmers say that advertising can be misleading consumers about where a lot of food is being produced.

Farmer Diane Cordeau, owner of Kai-Kai Farms in Martin County, said she's seen some restaurants use her farm's name but not her produce. She's confronted restaurant owners, including one who falsely claimed to being using her broccolini.

"So I contact the guy and I say how can you do that? So he said, 'Oh, you got such publicity so I figure I'll put your name on the menu no matter what, eventually I'll get it from you,'" Cordeau said.

Fort Lauderdale farmer Chelsea Marando said that's happened to her, too. Her greens were advertised on a local menu when she wasn't supplying them. Marando said she's also experienced it as a customer; produce marketed as local when it was out of season.

"It said local Florida tomatoes and I'm like I know 21 tomato farmers in the state of Florida and I haven't gotten any. How's my chef getting some and me not," Marando said.

Farmers like Marando said they appreciate the trend toward farm to table restaurants and said eating local should matter to diners.

"Fresher and tastes better absolutely," she said.

At Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale, using food grown within miles of its Fort Lauderdale restaurant is a priority: Produce picked in Davie, seafood caught near Pompano and herbs harvested in Homestead.

"Right now it's the best time to cook because all of the farmers, they're working at full force. And the best produce is coming out right now," said Market 17 Chef Lauren DeShields.

Fresh, local deliveries happen almost every day in-season. According to the restaurant, in season, about 80 percent of the produce is local at the restaurant. That can drop to 10 percent out-of-season during South Florida's hot summers. Relying on local farmers isn't easy. Market 17 has to reprint a new menu every day and react quickly if local farms can't deliver.

"We are at the mercy of what's available," said Market 17 owner Aaron Grauberger.

"I think at some point in the day there's something from Florida on my menu for sure," said John Kunkel, CEO of 50 Eggs Restaurant Group which owns the Yardbird in Miami Beach.

Yardbird promotes its use of local products but says it's tough for Florida farms to keep up with its heavy volume.

"Anytime you're in a restaurant that's moving 1,500 people a day through there, there's certain things you can do and certain things you can't do," Kunkel said.

"It's very hard for the consumer to know what they're eating is really legitimate or not," said A.G. James, who operates a food website. She said restaurants operate on an honor system.

"You might get a dish and 90 percent of that dish is not local but one ingredient is," James said.

"It's immoral but not illegal," Marando said. She compares it to other marketing for food that isn't regulated.

"We don't even have enough government to monitor the USDA organic, let alone monitor restaurants," Marando said.

She believes there should be minimum guidelines for restaurants to boast they're farm to table but she doesn't expect that to happen.

For now, farmers will have to count on consumers to keep restaurants honest.

"You have every right as a consumer to ask your waiter or waitress those questions and get that answer," Marando said.

Soon you'll start seeing Fresh from Florida logos on restaurant menus. But we found there's no one checking to make sure a restaurant is actually using local items. That's different than the program the state has in stores. If a product has a Fresh from Florida seal, 51 percent must contain a Florida agriculture product.

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