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Restaurant Food Fraud: When It Says Organic, But the Product Says Otherwise

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety on September 27, 2018

Organic foods have seen a rise in the past several years and have become a big business with homes across America using more and more organic foods in their daily lives. A whopping 82% of families consume $45 billion in organic foods per year. The issue with this is that while consumers are looking for organic foods, many restaurants are labeling themselves as being organic without seeking the certification that is required to be fully organic.

Can you imagine the surprise when a customer at a burger restaurant called Bareburger, which labeled itself as organic, noticed a truck being unloaded with beef that was not labeled as being organic? They were found to be using both organic and a blend of beef which was 20% – 25% non- organic.

Why is this so important? Well first and foremost I like to get what I am paying for. We locally source our own beef to make sure that it is raised the way that we like and when dining out if I believe I am getting organic meats then I want to be sure they are what they claim to be. Secondly, the Bareburger customer who brought up the non-organic beef needed to be sure where his foods were coming from since he had an operation that left him prone to infections and more likely to choose organic foods over others.

Gil Rosenberg made it a point to contact the store management and let them know about his sighting of the unloaded truck and was told that the burgers were “made with organic” beef which doesn’t allow for the organic label per the USDA. Many consumers would just hang their hat and not go back to that establishment but according to an article in the NY Times Mr. Rosenberg went further.  Going through the trash at Bareburger, Gil Rosenberg found that condiments and even tomatoes were not labeled organic.

But is all of this illegal? While farms and other businesses that want to advertise their wares as organic have to answer to certifying organizations that conduct annual inspections for the Department of Agriculture, restaurants do not. A restaurant can seek organic certification if it wants, but is not required to.

Under the department’s current rules, restaurants (characterized as “retail food establishments”) may call their food organic if they have made what Jennifer Tucker, the deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, called a “reasonable” effort to use organic ingredients.

There is no precise definition, however, of what constitutes a reasonable effort, and no monitoring body for enforcement. If the department receives a complaint that a restaurant is falsely billing its food as organic, Ms. Tucker said, it will investigate the claim and if necessary, send a letter asking the owner to stop using the term.

In 2002, the Department of Agriculture started the National Organic Program to create uniform standards, like not using synthetic fertilizers or genetic engineering, for farms and other businesses that produce, handle or process food. To enforce the rules, the agency works with organizations that assess and certify compliance.

Restaurants were exempted, Ms. Tucker said, because the biggest concerns at the time were farming practices and food production. The certification process is expensive, and it was thought that requiring compliance might impose too heavy a burden on restaurateurs.  Besides, “there weren’t a lot of restaurants making organic claims,” said Connie Karr, the certification director of the nonprofit organization Oregon Tilth, which certifies businesses as organic. “I assume that back then, it just wasn’t an issue.”

How Did Bareburger React?

At Bareburger, Mr. Pelekanos said he started using the term because he was trying to buy organic ingredients whenever possible and wanted to draw attention to that. Three and a half years ago, he said, he started buying 100 percent organic beef from Vermont Country Farms in addition to a 75-to-80-percent organic blend from Pat LaFrieda. The restaurants have used both, “based on market pricing, flavor, consistency and availability,” a Bareburger spokesman said, but for now are serving only the all-organic beef. (Agriculture Department guidelines for farms and other businesses say a product must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients — excluding salt and water — to be labeled organic.)

Mr. Pelekanos said he had never claimed that all of Bareburger’s menu items were 100 percent organic. And he has no plans to seek certification for any of the 41 Bareburger restaurants in the United States.

But at some newer Bareburger locations, words like “local” and “sustainable” — and in certain cases no words at all — have replaced the word “organic” near the logo. “We’re not moving away from the word,” Mr. Pelekanos said, but “we are adding more descriptors of our brand.”

Mr. Pelekanos said he didn’t think Bareburger needed to stop using “organic” entirely. “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?” he asked.


Many places find that becoming 100% organic is too involving. The challenges often outweigh the benefits when it comes to being an organic restaurant. On top of the already tough demands of food inspections and other health related classes that must be taken when it comes to being organic there are intense records that have to be kept as well as extensive training that all employees must go through. There are also fees associated with becoming and staying organic in the food industry and with mounting costs in other areas this is just not something a lot of restaurants can afford. It is said that many inquire, but when presented with the list of obligations they end up changing their minds and only go partially organic or just serve regularly sourced foods.

We end up preparing a lot of foods at home to be sure we know where the ingredients come from and there are a few restaurants here who serve locally sourced meats and vegetables, but none that are 100% organic to my knowledge because of the demanding set of rules. Eat with caution.

By: Samantha Cooper, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)