Locally Sourced Lies? How Sustainability Became the Food World’s Most Disturbing Grift

·7 min read

The face obscured by a mask, the shaky camera, the drone of the refrigerator compressor above—they all added to the video’s intrigue. It arrived a little more than a week ago, out of the blue, like a covert communique from behind enemy lines, as the anonymous masked man explained to us that what we knew to be true was, in fact, lies. I’ve never actually read a John le Carré novel, but I don’t need to now, because I assume I got the same liminal thrill by watching this random guy’s Instagram story.

The masked man was talking about Belcampo, a meat purveyor. The company staked its reputation on being a place that sustainably, organically and humanely raised its own meat on its Northern California ranch and then sold it through its own stores. If you bought from Belcampo, you assumed you had put money in the hands of a responsible steward of animals and the land. The company’s pious story offered steak-lovers an alternative to factory-farmed meat, and it let Belcampo charge a premium price. This now ex-employee alleged on Instagram that the company’s core claim was untrue: It didn’t source its meat from its own farms. On the account @NELA_Butcher and inside the fridge at the company’s Santa Monica, Calif., butcher shop, the worker apologized for lying to customers while showing off beef tenderloin from Tasmania—not California—and mass-market chicken you could get at Whole Foods.

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When I reached out to Belcampo, the company responded with a statement from its cofounder Anya Fernald acknowledging that outside purveyors’ meat had been labeled and sold as Belcampo. But she also said it was an incident isolated to this particular shop and would be investigated further. While much of the meat at the butcher shop was from the company’s own supply chain, the point remains that it still sometimes passed off a lesser product as premium to unwitting customers. Belcampo had the option to tell customers it sold meats that didn’t match its narrative—or lose out on sales because the farming practices it loved to tout couldn’t scale enough to fill a butcher case. It chose neither. Belcampo took the easy way out of profiting from its story, even when it didn’t apply.

Sadly, that’s becoming something of a trend in the food world—shilling a pretty story with words like sustainable, organic, handcrafted, locally sourced, farm-to-table and a whole host of phrases that imply a specific set of values and enough labor that demand a premium price. Yet in the food world, many have shown a willingness to skip the hard work part (and the values that undergird it) and instead rely on these catchphrases to lure in customers and have them cough up their hard-earned cash.

Back in April, The New York Times revealed how celebrated chef and Noma alum Blaine Wetzel created a toxic work environment at Willows Inn and didn’t fastidiously source all the ingredients from its surroundings on Lummi Island as he had claimed. In a few examples, employees revealed how the destination restaurant bought chickens from Costco and that frozen Alaskan scallops were cut in a way to resemble a local variety. After the article dropped, Willows started listing sources for its ingredients on its site, including multinational food wholesaler Sysco, which would have been anathema before. The article punctured the myths at the core of the restaurant’s locavore allure.

Last summer, the hipster LA darling Sqirl went through its own reckoning. Employees leaked to food-world rabble-rouser of note Joe Rosenthal that the artisan jam at the core of the breakfast-driven restaurant was stored in buckets that would grow a layer of mold on them. Even worse, that mold would be scraped off and the preserves underneath would still be served to customers. This disturbing news came after employees claimed that chef-owner Jessica Koslow took their ideas and presented them as her own, according to a story by Eater LA. Koslow issued an apology last summer, but the buzz Sqirl had generated for years has not returned.

Some may remember the saga of Mast Brothers, the Brooklyn chocolatiers who always crafted their confections themselves, bean-to-bar—or so the story was told. The brothers said the company meticulously sourced the cacao, roasted it, ground it down, tempered it and made the bars in-house. They became stars of the Brooklyn craft movement and their story—paired with their au courant beards—moved units. Turns out it wasn’t always true. Under pressure, the brothers admitted that, early on, they melted down Valrhona and put it in their own pretty packaging. Whoops.

At the height of the farm-to-table craze, not long before all of this, the Tampa Bay Times called B.S. on the whole trend. In a seven-part series called “Farm to Fable,” the newspaper reported that restaurants lied on their menus about the farms they worked with to procure ingredients and revealed that farmers markets were sourcing produce from around the globe just like the big supermarkets. The investigation even went as far as genetically testing ingredients to show that they weren’t actually from where chefs and suppliers had claimed. Farm-to-table cuisine had been reduced to nothing but an empty slogan.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of chefs actually doing the work, but the empty rhetoric frustrates them as they watch colleagues get plaudits for merely spinning a good yarn.

For starters, to be genuinely sustainable is no easy feat for those pursuing it. Matt Orlando, the chef at Amass, in Copenhagen, has had outside auditors study his restaurant’s carbon footprint to see how he could reduce it. He closely monitors his water consumption and also has a test kitchen devoted to figuring out ways to upcycle food waste. It’s arduous and time-consuming work. So when he sees chefs do nothing more than post on Instagram about sustainability and bask in the glow of likes and comments, he shakes his head.

“It’s a problem in the industry where there are so many things that people project about their restaurant that are not true and sustainability is one of those things,” Orlando told me. “The worst ones are the famous restaurants that all of a sudden start to drop the word ‘sustainable’ and then someone writes an article about how they’re leading the way in sustainability, but they’re not actually doing anything. They’re just talking about it.”

And in us, the dining public, the food-world grifters find willing marks. Because all these buzzwords aren’t just about implied labor. They have moral weight to them. “Local” and “handcrafted” show support for the artisan nearby, not the faceless corporation somewhere else. “Organic” and “sustainable” assure us the imperiled planet is being cared for in the service of our pleasure.

For a certain subset of the population these values are worth paying for because they promote a better world. But it also gives us the sense of satisfaction that we’re conscious consumers—that we’re doing our part and we’re not party to the problems we see all around us. We can eat that burger and not feel like we contributed to animal cruelty or the destruction of the planet. Our conscience can be clear.

Some people and companies really do want to make a difference in the world and put in the work to make it happen. But others will cynically feed on our need for absolution. They use the anxiety burrowing a hole in us, and, for the right price, they’ll fill that gaping maw with some pretty stories that will make us feel better about our consumption. Then they tell us to pay no mind to the man behind the curtain, or the disgruntled employee livestreaming from the walk-in fridge.

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