When you go into an organic restaurant, chances are your meal will be pricier. But you figure it’s worth it.
The food is healthier. It’s non-GMO. And comes without pesticides, antibiotics, or chemical residues used in industrial farming.
But did you know that restaurants can call themselves “organic” even if their food is not?
Under current U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules, restaurants can call their food organic if they make a “reasonable” effort to use organic ingredients.1
But “reasonable” is not defined. And the USDA has never prosecuted restaurants that abuse the term.
The lack of standards go back to 2002. That’s when the USDA created the National Organic Program. It was an effort to regulate use of the term “organic” in the food industry.2
The standards included not using synthetic fertilizers or genetic engineering for farms and businesses that produce, handle, or process food. And any final product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients to be labeled organic.
But restaurants were exempted. The agency decided it would be too costly and difficult for restaurants to document that their food was organic.
The result? The organic label is pretty much meaningless when it comes to restaurants. Even if just a few ingredients are organic, a restaurant may decide to call itself “organic.”
Jake Lewin is president of the non-profit organization California Certified Organic Food. It privately certifies restaurants as organic.
Since there is no legal standard, many organic restaurants serve conventionally farmed foods, he said. “It’s very easy to be tempted to cut corners.”3
Organic ingredients, on average, cost a restaurant 47% more than non-organic ones. Some ingredients, particularly vegetables, can be more than double the cost.4
Lewin points out that restaurant owners can charge higher menu prices by labeling their establishment organic. And at the same time, they can cut costs by mixing in non-organic ingredients. And since there is no law against it, no one is the wiser.
The practice has come to be known in the food industry as “greenwashing.” It the use of disinformation to present a product as environmentally friendly and organic when it’s really not.
To be fair, it is very difficult even for an honest restauranteur to be truly organic. All menu items need to come from certified organic ingredients. And all cleaning products, storage, prep, sanitation, pest management, and everything else in the establishment must meet organic standards.5
Truly organic restaurants constantly run into supply limits on vegetables and meats. Especially when they are depending on local farms and seasonal foods.
5 Ways to Tell if a Restaurant Really Is Organic
Some restaurant owners want to provide the very best organic food they can. Others might be in it for a buck.
Here’s how to tell if an organic restaurant really is organic:
- Beware of weasel words. If a menu item is listed as being “made with” an organic ingredient, it can mean that only a small portion of a dish is organic.
- Where’s the farm? Truly organic restaurants often list the names of the organic farms that sell to them.6
- Talk to your server. Ask if all ingredients are organic.
- Talk to the owner. Owners who are trying to be as organic as possible, will show their passion. They will want to talk about where they source ingredients.
One more thing…
If it’s possible, take a peek in the kitchen, or even out back where the trash is left. If you see brands that you know are non-organic, you’ve finished your detective work.