label detective: Farm-to-table

Reviewed by our expert panel
label detective: Farm-to-table

What does it mean if your meal is labelled ‘farm-to-table’? Food law specialists at Simpson Grierson explain.

What is ‘Farm-to table’?

‘Farm-to-table’, also known as ‘paddock-to-plate’, ‘farm-to-fork’ or ‘garden-to-table’, is a concept some food establishments promote, meaning the food they use comes directly from an identifiable farm. There is an emphasis on using local produce and on the traceability of food.

The farm-to-table movement has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s when people started turning back to fresh, whole food following a period when processed foods were all the rage for their convenience. With this change in attitude, organisations set up around the world, including Chez Panisse, California Certified Organic Farmers, Organically Grown and Slow Food.

Farm-to-table is a continuation of this, with customers wanting to know what they are eating and where the food on their plate has come from. It is becoming an established and frequently used term, much like ‘organic’ or ‘fresh’.

What does the law have to say?

New Zealand doesn’t have any specific laws defining farm-to-table. However, the Fair Trading Act 1986, which is enforced by the Commerce Commission, requires all claims made are not false or misleading and can be backed up by evidence. When an eatery describes its food as farm-to-table, it is making a claim about the nature, manufacturing process and characteristic of the food it is serving. As is the case with credence claims, a consumer would expect an eatery claiming farm-to-table is offering a premium product. If a food has actually been heavily processed, or if only one component of the meal (such as the meat) is farm-to-table, the eatery making the claim could be breaking the law.

Where’s the line in the sand?

As well as a lack of legal definition, there is no reliable industry definition for the term. Eateries are labelling their food as farm-to-table, but there is no standard on what that is, or set criteria that need to be met.

In its purest form, farm-to-table means the food is prepared at the farm and the table is located at the farm where the food is then eaten. More commonly, it refers to a link between the eatery and a certain farm from which the eatery buys their food. Eateries also use the term to refer to farmers’ markets or local producers they source their ingredients from.

What is also unclear is whether the entire meal should be locally sourced or just the main components of the meal, such as the meat and vegetables. Often the menus at farm-to-table restaurants do not label the specific source of their food. They use farm-to-table as a synonym for fresh, organic or natural. Consumers then can’t be sure where the food comes from, despite the whole point being knowing the source of the food.

As the Commerce Commission prioritises misleading and unsubstantiated claims, eateries must ensure their claims are accurate and not misleading, especially when consumers pay the premium prices often attached to them.

What’s coming up?

It may be that we will see a legal or industry definition or standard developed for farm-to-table claims. For example, organic certification is now available for food products, enabling businesses to use organic certification as substantiation, while giving consumers assurance certain standards have been met and compliance has been verified.

Watch this space!

First published: Oct 2018

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