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Food by VICE

Any Restaurant Can Call Itself 'Organic' and Get Away with It

As long as they're making a "reasonable" effort.

by Hannah Keyser
Aug 14 2018, 8:56pm

Photo via Flickr user Yelp Inc.

In some ways, it feels easier than ever to be a conscientious eater. Producers and purveyors have found that people are willing to pay a premium for food that feels ambiguously ethical and healthy—and the businesses that cater to those people are booming. But the buzzwords that allow customers and consumers to imagine bucolic origins for their food have been steadily interrogated recently for what they really mean.

In 2016, a Tampa Bay Times food critic found that the claims of "locally sourced" ingredients at a popular "farm-to-table" restaurants in the city were largely bullshit. MUNCHIES has written about why "vegetarian" eggs are bad for the chickens who produce them and how most "organic" chickens will never see the sun. Now, a new report by Priya Krishna for the New York Times looks at why the "organic" tagline of your favorite restaurant may not mean anything at all.

Restaurants can apply for official organic certification from the U.S.D.A., but it's a complicated and expensive process. Beyond that, there's very little motivation to do so because—and here's what you probably didn't realize—unlike farms or factories, restaurants don't need this certification to advertise their food as organic. All they need, according to deputy administrator of the National Organic Program Jennifer Tucker, is to make a "reasonable" effort to source organic ingredients. And the Department of Agriculture doesn't even monitor that standard independently. There's no active oversight of "organic" claims by restaurants, just a tipline where concerned consumers can lodge a complaint.

One person who did just that? Fifty-one-year-old Gil Rosenberg, who noticed Pat LaFrieda meat—75-80 percent organic, which is below the minimum standard for being advertised as such—getting delivered to a Bareburger location that had the word "organic" right over the restaurant's logo. So he did what anyone might do in that situation if they were also a fictional detective from the turn of the 20th century: He rooted around in the restaurant's trash and found further evidence of non-organic ingredients like tomatoes and mayonnaise.

He brought his concerns to Bareburger's chief executive, Euripides Pelekanos, to the restaurant chain's suppliers, and finally, the Department of Agriculture's tipline. That was all last fall. Since then, the U.S.D.A. has sent him a notification that they received the complaint but no further followups, and Bareburger hasn't changed they way they're advertising. The website still touts, "all the local, organic, & sustainable burgers, shakes, salads, fries, and sides your earth-loving mouths can handle."

When the Times spoke to Pelekanos about the discrepancy, he defended Bareburger's word choice, saying, "Why are we going to run away from a word, when we have spent so much time and energy over the years to serve so much organic food in our restaurants, and we charge a premium for it?”

Ah. Well as long as they're charging more for it.