Beneath the fishy furor and piscine puns is a serious issue: the leap of faith all of us take when dining out, especially as consumers expect more or finer foods for less money.
Early this year, a lawsuit filed against Subway in a Northern California federal court accused it of putting “anything but tuna” in its tuna sandwiches. That lawsuit was amended this month to argue that the franchise chain is not selling, as promised, “100% sustainably caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna.” The New York Times weighed in last week, declaring that DNA testing of Subway’s sandwich filling did not reveal a trace of tuna, though the analysis is significantly less than 100 percent accurate on processed and cooked fish.
Subway is fighting the suit and says its tuna is indeed tuna. (The Times noted that it’s possible, if the analysis it reported is correct, that a supplier could be responsible as federal regulations allow more than a dozen types of fish to be called tuna.) Meanwhile, ensnared in its own scandal, Passmore is taking a different tack.
Passmore sells its pricy products to the Bay Area’s haute cuisine farm-to-table scene. After the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that Passmore caviar promoted as raised in ponds on its property was actually from sturgeon farmed as far away as France and China, the company apologized. “I have failed,” owner Michael Passmore said, promising to do better going forward.
The fish trade can be a bit, well, fishy. A 2013 study by the nonprofit Oceana discovered fish fraud in restaurants and markets nationwide. White tuna was, more than half the time, the more pedestrian (and cheaper) escolar. In both D.C. and New York City, all the restaurant sushi tuna tested was ... not tuna.
And in the world of fast food, many things are not exactly as they appear. “Butter flavored” popcorn at the movies is often made from a salty yellow food coloring called Flavacol and soybean oil, among other things. Some egg breakfast sandwiches contain as much “premium egg blend” as actual egg. Even sit-down restaurants are known to stick vegetables from a can in their “seasonal” offerings.
Subway’s tuna troubles — not the chain’s first incident of ingredient controversy — seems to have inspired more jokes than genuine outrage. The Passmore scandal, however, has struck a nerve.
The farm-to-table movement, after all, began partly in response to fast-food (and supermarket) processed fakery. Originating in counterculture California in the 1970s and 1980s, places such as Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry (yes, that French Laundry) emphasized fresh food made with locally sourced ingredients.
Once a boutique trend, farm-to-table has become big business. A majority of sit-down restaurants across the United States claim to offer at least some locally sourced ingredients. And if people in California and the Pacific Northwest take their food a trifle more seriously than diners in other regions, that’s partly because they can. Copious amounts of fresh food are available year-round out here.
But “greenwashing” scandals have accompanied that phenomenal growth. As San Diego Magazine sniffed a few years ago, it’s more than occasionally “farm-to-fable.” A Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2016 found that lies abounded along the farm-to-table food chain. More recently, the New York Times reported that Washington state’s famous Willows Inn, which supposedly sourced almost all its produce locally, picked up some produce from nearby grocers when it ran short (head chef Blaine Wetzel says it’s not so). Meanwhile, a former employee of Belcampo Meat Co., which advertises grass-fed, pasture-raised meat, recently outed it on Instagram — “This is what health looks like” — for selling corn-fed beef at its Santa Monica store. (The company blames covid-19 shortages and promises to do better.)
In a legendary bit from the TV show “Portlandia,” a couple dining at a farm-to-table restaurant make a quick exit to investigate whether the chicken they intended to order — named Colin — was actually raised on a nearby pasture. “You have a good relationship with this farm? It’s not some guy on a yacht who lives in Miami saying that he’s organic,” one asks suspiciously.
The skit made a serious point. As menus increasingly give calorie and other information, diners expect to know more about what they’re consuming. Touting ingredients as “local” and “sustainable” sounds good, but those terms aren’t uniformly regulated. When authenticity is your calling card, businesses need to keep things on the up and up. Once your brand goes underwater, it’s very hard to get a good name back.