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FOOD AND DRINK

3 MIN

An Ontario Program Is Fighting Food Fraud in Restaurants

When the menu says it's 'local,' that's often a fib (or an outright lie). Ontario's Culinary Tourism Alliance offers restaurants a certification program so diners know for sure what's local

People want to eat local. Research shows that descriptive food labels on menus improve not just sales, but customer perceptions. And in an age of locavorism and regional pride, these descriptions often cover not just flavours and textures, but provenance, too.

Alas, as a seminal story last year by Florida's Tampa Bay Times revealed, many restaurants stretch the truth – or outright lie – when it comes to the source of their ingredients. (The investigation has since led to increased attention by government authorities.) Ingredients purchased from who-knows-where suddenly become “local.”

The degree to which this "localwashing" occurs is difficult to measure. But even a truthful menu can give people a false impression of a restaurant's impact on the local economy. Strategically placed ingredients – a feature beer from a nearby brewery, perhaps, or a cheese from the next town over – can give a menu a sort of "locavore halo" even if they make up just a fraction of the establishment's purchases. And no one can blame diners for not wanting to interrogate the wait staff every time they go out to eat.

"Any good marketer can put things on their menu," says Rebecca Mackenzie, president and CEO of the Toronto-based Culinary Tourism Alliance (CTA). As an advocate for Ontario food producers, she has long been aware of the localwashing problem. "We’d heard from producers, 'I’m sick and tired of seeing my name on menus when they haven’t bought from me in years.'"

The CTA’s response is a stringent certification program called Feast On, which tells diners that yes, the “local” item in the menu is indeed from Ontario. The goal is not just to promote local eating, but to facilitate relationships between producers and restaurants, and to build a brand that consumers can trust.

Courtesy Niagara Parks Culinary

Great Lakes fish sandwich at Elements at the Falls

Launched to consumers in June 2014 with close to 30 participants, it has since grown to encompass more than 120 establishments – whose combined annual food purchases total some $14 million – across Canada’s most populous province. All five restaurants in the Niagara Parks system are signed up, for example.

As far as Mackenzie knows, it’s the only program of its kind in North America.

She and her team spent a year developing criteria to create Feast On. To achieve certification, a restaurant must complete paperwork detailing all of its food purchases, and auditors contact producers to verify transactions.

At least 25% of both food and beverage procurement must be from Ontario sources, and restaurants must re-certify every two years. Should someone apply but fail to meet the criteria, the CTA will help them increase their local purchases until they qualify. (There are two or three dozen businesses in the queue, typically.)

Mackenzie acknowledges the program isn’t equally fair to everyone across Ontario as it stands. Imagine you’re a local-focused restaurant in Northern Ontario or the Ottawa region and you’re sourcing goods from Manitoba or Quebec. You’re sourcing local products – but because they cross a provincial border, they won’t count towards your certification.

Meanwhile Mackenzie says, many certified restaurants, such as Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., have been inspired to increase how much they buy from Ontario sources. "Going through the certification helped them recognize they could do even more," she says.

Courtesy Niagara Parks Culinary

Charcuterie board from Elements on the Falls

Feast On is a consumer-facing program – restaurants are listed on the website and have the right to promote themselves using the brand – but Julia Graham, chef and owner of The Quirky Carrot in Alexandria, Ont., says it brings clear benefits to restaurants as well. 

"Almost weekly I’m given an e-introduction to a producer or maker in my area by the Feast On team," she says from Alexandria, which is about halfway between Ottawa and Montreal. "As a chef and entrepreneur, there’s only so much you can do outside of your kitchen [to research potential new suppliers], so it’s really cool when those introductions are brought to me."

It's these relationships, she says, that makes the program so valuable – not just among food producers and chefs, but with diners who have discovered her restaurant thanks to the Feast On branding.

"It’s fun," she says. "It’s opened up a whole new world of people for us in this great big food community."

Published Wednesday, April 12th 2017

Header image credit: Courtesy Langdon Hall (a participant in Feast ON)

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