The Government is facing renewed calls to create a stronger definition for "local" food, after it emerged that one in five restaurants, pubs and hotels in England and Wales have made false claims about the provenance of their produce.
A survey of 33 local authorities released by Local Government Regulation (LGR) last week showed that 19% of restaurants misdescribed food as "local" when it fact it came from as far away as New Zealand (see "Telling porkies" below).
A spokesman for the LGR said: "We are not calling for statutory regulation but some sort of informal agreement between the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the industry that defines what localism and regionalism are in terms of food sourcing. This would, from our point of view, be a very useful step."
Henrietta Green, founder of Food Lovers Britain, echoed the call for a stronger definition. "I have been saying for years that the whole area of using ‘local' as a description is a complete minefield," she said.
And Mark Linehan, managing director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, added: "It makes sense for restaurants to promote their sustainable activity, like using locally produced or sourced food, but these claims must be backed up by evidence, or customers will see through them."
However there was less agreement on how "local" ought to be defined. The LGR said it would be happy with food being sold within a 30-mile radius of where it was produced.
But Green argued that it ought to be defined by more than just the distance of a supplier from a retailer. "When consumers buy into local foods, they are not only buying geographically but they are buying into what they think of as a set of values that would encompass ‘localness'.
"Everyone is local to someone. Coca-Cola, if you live five minutes down from the factory, is a local producer. Obviously, emotionally and contextually, you do not think of Coca-Cola as being local, so there has to be a set of standards that are involved in what your sourcing policies are, what your welfare policies are and so on," she said.
Green's organisation has recently started recognising Food Lovers Approved producers, where accredited suppliers have to show not only that their product is produced locally, but that a proportion of the ingredients they use to make it is also local.
Despite the calls though, Defra told Caterer it had no plans to strengthen the definition. "Labelling on the origin of food may not be used to mislead consumers. Although there's no agreed definition for the term ‘local', any business using the term should be able to explain what it means," a spokesperson said.
While there is no definition of "local" in food labelling legislation, the Food Law Code of Practice does tell food authorities to interpret local as "sales within the supplying establishment's own county plus the greater of either the neighbouring county or counties or 30 miles from the boundary of the supplying establishment's county."
Telling porkies - misleading menus
Misleading claims on restaurants' menus included:
â- "Local Devon chicken" that had been imported
â- "Fresh local cream" that was cream substitute containing vegetable fat
â- "Somerset butter" that came from Scotland
â- "West Country fish fillets" that came from the West Country but were filleted in China
The LGR found that meat and dairy products were the most frequently misdescribed, including:
â- 50% of poultry
â- 29% of sausages
â- 27% of both beef and lamb
â- 24% of dairy products