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14 December 2007

Under the ethical table

Below is my first article for Word of Mouth. You can also read it over there, by clicking here.

As I predicted earlier in the year, Word of Mouth is a welcome addition to the food blogging community. Under the stewardship of Susan Smillie it has become a great example of a community blog - one where a variety of people post, from pros like Jay Rayner and Paul Levy to more amateur folk like Andrew Barrow or Aidan Brooks, aka Trig.

As ever, I hope you enjoy it. If you feel inclined, comment below or on Word of Mouth.

According to Sarah Irving, author of a report published in the current edition of Ethical Consumer magazine: "The restaurant industry would particularly benefit from good environmental and social reporting and better transparency." She is particularly critical of restaurants for bandying around phrases 'sourced locally', 'organic' or 'free range'.

But this is not really such a surprise is it? After all, there is no broadly accepted definition of any of these terms or their benefits. According to Whole Foods, anywhere in the UK can be deemed local. Organic status is determined in the UK by the Soil Association Ltd (a body only affiliated to the Soil Association charity). And anyway, organic does not mean the same thing in any two countries. As for Fair Trade, an early Word of Mouth post touches on some points dear to my heart.

So it cannot be a surprise that restaurants are confused, given that the ethical industry doesn't know its free range bottom from its organic elbow.

The Ethical Consumer report boldly states that the restaurant industry would benefit from better reporting and transparency, but offers no argument as to why that would be the case or by what metric they are measuring the benefits.

Tragus Holdings is one of the UK's largest restaurant groups. It owns brands including Belgo, Strada and Café Rouge and has about 240 individual restaurants. It comes in for a bit of a kicking from the report, earning only 2 out of a possible 20 points.

Given the seemingly self-evident benefits derived from ethical dining, Tragus must be financially crippled, or at least diners must be fleeing? Well, no. According to their 2007 full year results (pdf), turnover was £149m. Each restaurant in the group made an average profit of £238,000. This is not a company desperately in need of salvation from greater transparency.

Loch Fyne comes out of the report with a freshly burnished halo, receiving particular praise for its sustainable fish buying policy. But that's hardly a big surprise. Its branding is all about the high quality fish, For Loch Fyne, quality and provenance is all. I don't think anyone would try to argue that is the case at The Gourmet Burger Kitchen or Café Rouge.

I think this report missed a trick by focusing on cheaper brands. Far more interesting would have been an audit of some of the top-end restaurant groups, whether those directly associated with chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse or more general brands such as Caprice Holdings.

I'd love to know how many air miles are racked up delivering their produce.

With rare exceptions, chefs are notably schtum on these sorts of issues because they risk accusations of hypocrisy. There is a good reason that Oliver Rowe was able to secure so much press coverage when he announced he was sourcing all his ingredients from within the M25.

So my challenge to the team at Ethical Consumer is to carry out an audit on the top restaurants and see how they fare and then see if the easy prey of the chains are quite so abominably unethical.


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Congrats on joining the gang at Word of Mouth. What kept you? ;-)

Good post too...

Thanks Andrew

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