Bringing Ethics to the Table
Sarah Irving asks how easy is it to take our principles with us when we venture out to eat and drink, and ranks 26 of the largest national restaurant chains against ethical issues.
Selecting ethical food, drink or household products may sometimes be tough. But when you’re standing in front of a grocery shelf there is usually scope for comparing items and looking for organic or fair trade marks, vegetarian or sustainable fish logos, or free range or country-of-origin labelling. And if you’re trying to find healthy options for yourself or your children, fresh fruit and veg or mandatory nutritional labelling is at hand.
But sitting in a restaurant, attempting to identify ethical or healthier options whilst also trying to celebrate or relax with friends or family, can be even harder. Many menus make vague ethical claims, like ‘local’ or ‘natural,’ without giving real information, and staff are often poorly trained to deal with queries.
One-third of the money spent on food and drink in the UK is outside the home, in a dining out market worth around £30 billion a year. So challenging restaurant owners on their environmental and social sustainability and animal welfare is well worth the effort.
What’s on my plate?
Although Ethical Consumer found that overall the levels of awareness of ethical issues in the restaurant industry were pretty pitiful, some chains are showing signs of beginning to grasp the idea of sustainability.
JD Wetherspoon, for example, has been serving free range eggs and organic milk for several years, and its website promises UK-only seasonal vegetables, cod from sustainable fisheries and children’s meals made from organic ingredients. In 2007 it received Compassion in World Farming’s ‘Good Egg’ award for serving eggs from uncaged hens.
However, few of the chains demonstrated this kind of approach across the board. Wetherspoons, Pitcher & Piano and Gourmet Burger Kitchen serve individual items labelled free range, organic or local, but do not apply these principles across their entire ranges.
One exception was Loch Fyne Restaurants, which mainly sells fish dishes but also offers meat and vegetarian meals. The entire chain has a Marine Conservation Society (MCS) rating of 2, which means that it: “has a sustainable fish buying policy; does not sell fish from the MCS Fish to Avoid list; includes at least one wild-caught species certified to the Marine Stewardship Council or equivalent standard on its menu; any farmed species are certified to the Soil Association or equivalent standard and/or listed on the MCS Fish to Eat list.”
It has also just switched all its restaurants to renewable electricity.
However, Loch Fyne was recently bought up by pub chain and Hungry Horse owner Greene King. According to sources at Loch Fyne, Greene King agreed during takeover talks to maintain its new subsidiary’s high ethical standards; it remains to be seen if these will filter up to the owner.
Poor reporting and transparency
The erratic awareness of sustainability issues in the restaurant trade suggests that it would particularly benefit from good environmental and social reporting and better transparency. The response to Ethical Consumer’s requests for information was therefore disappointing, with TGI Friday’s refusing to co-operate, most companies not replying at all, and only JD Weatherspon, Yum! Brands and Loch Fyne providing comprehensive replies on questions about genetic modification, animal welfare, local sourcing, and environmental and supply chain policies. Many of the companies on the table had no information on sustainable sourcing issues on their websites either.
Independent = Ethical?
The majority of restaurants are not national brands like those on the table, but single independent venues or very small local chains.
Some of these have very pro-active stances towards ethical sourcing. Well-known examples are the Duke of Cambridge in Islington (Britain’s “first certified organic gastro-pub”) and Acorn House, a London restaurant which attracted much press attention after billing itself as “dedicated to healthy eating and environmental responsibility,” but there are many restaurants all over the UK which have praiseworthy approaches to organic sourcing, local suppliers, vegetarian provision and fair trade alternatives.
However, Charlotte Jarman of Ethical Eats, a project which works with some of London’s thousands of independent restaurants to improve their sustainability, says that there are “huge variations in awareness between restaurants owners. The majority of restaurant owners have very little awareness of the issues.”
The Ethical Eats and Greener Curry projects of London Food Links, an NGO dedicated to reducing the impacts of the capital’s food consumption, work with individual restaurants and small businesses to promote energy efficiency, better sourcing and waste management. They recognise that it is often hard for smaller businesses to research their impacts, and so offer advice, support and the opportunity for restaurant owners to get together and share information.
And as sustainability buzzwords like ‘organic’ and ‘local’ become more fashionable, Jarman admits that it’s also important to make sure that restaurants stick by any claims they make, whether they’re chains or one-off operations.
Julie’s, a fashionable West London restaurant with a substantial ‘celebrity customers’ list on its website, was fined £7,500 for falsely selling (and pricing) meat as organic. And the Wetherspoons and Hungry Horse chains were both exposed in a TV documentary in August 2007 as selling steaks which were in some cases claimed by staff to be British beef, but had actually come from Zebu cattle raised in Africa and Brazil.(1,2) Wetherspoon’s website uses a ‘100% British Beef” logo, but only specifies on a separate page that this doesn’t refer to all the company’s beef meals.
“Greenwash is certainly an area of concern,” says Charlotte Jarman, “but I’d hate to see this putting people off.”
Tips for finding an ethical restaurant
1 Visit the Vegetarian Society’s www.seedlingshowcase.org.uk, which lists members of the Food & Drink Guild, restaurants around the UK which have met the Society’s strict certification requirements. Not all the restaurants certified are exclusively vegetarian, so ‘mixed’ groups can use the site’s listings by area to find veggie-safe destinations.
2 Check out the ‘restaurants and pubs’ listings at the Marine Conservation Society’s www.fishonline.org to see chains and individual eateries with sustainable fish sourcing policies. If you’re eating fish somewhere which doesn’t appear on the list or have Marine Stewardship Council approved fish on the menu, try introducing them to the ‘fish to avoid’ and ‘fish to eat’ lists on the MCS’s website.
3 See the Soil Association website www.soilassociation.org for a downloadable list of certified organic restaurants around Britain, and guidance on how to check if organic claims are genuine.
4 There is no excuse for any restaurant serving tea, coffee or chocolate not to offer Fairtrade options. Certification is also available for rice, herbs & spices and fruit. Contacts details for dozens of regional and national Fairtrade wholesalers are available from www.fairtrade.org.uk if your favourite local eatery needs educating.
5 Some of the UK’s local groups of the ‘eco-gastronomic’ Slow Food movement have directories of recommended suppliers and restaurants. See the groups list on www.slowfood.org.uk.
In a post-Jamie Oliver world, awareness of what goes into food – especially that intended for children – has rocketed. Many fast food chains have responded to criticism by trying to outdo each other’s claims for reducing salt, sugar and fat.
A degree of snobbery, perhaps, has meant that restaurant chains have escaped much of the flak. But a November 2006 report by the Soil Association revealed that more upscale ‘family’ restaurants like Nando’s, Garfunkel’s and TGI Friday’s were serving children’s meals which were high in fat, salt and sugar and which offered little in the way of fruit or vegetables. French-themed chain Café Rouge came out worst in the survey, scoring just 8 out of 30 possible points.(5)
And in October 2007, a review by pressure group Consensus Action on Salt & Health reported that of several meals tested for salt levels, Pizza Hut came out worst, with some of its meal combinations containing four times the daily recommended limit for a six year old child. Fast food chains which have in the past been criticised for unhealthy food came out better in the report, and were praised for having more information available about salt content. Pizza Hut was also condemned for failing to have any information in restaurants about salt levels.(4)
What’s your waiter being paid?
The restaurant and catering industry is notorious for its low pay, poor conditions and unsocial hours. While the introduction of the minimum wage may have improved the situation for the worst-off, trade unions have also criticised employers for keeping too many staff on this rate, treating it as a standard pay level rather than an absolute minimum.
According to campaigners in cities like London and Manchester, the restaurant trade is also the destination for many legal and illegal immigrants, who are then paid even more exploitative rates of as low as £1.20 an hour. According to campaign group London Citizens, the restaurant sector is packed with workers who, excluded from unions by hostile employers and language barriers, are rarely aware of rights such as sick pay or holidays.
Charlotte Jarman of Ethical Eats confirms the extent of the problem. “Very little is being done to address the issue of staff conditions and pay,” she says. “It’s recognised as a big problem in the industry, with low levels of union membership. Some of the more aware restaurants on sustainability are also aware of this issue and have good practices, but they don’t necessarily have joined-up thinking.”
“It may also be that good working practices aren’t as marketable as organic or local food,” Jarman suggests.
Many of the companies on the table have been criticised for workers’ rights infringements. These include fines from the Health & Safety Executive for JD Wetherspoon, Marston’s, Mitchells & Butlers, Whitbread and Restaurant Group brands Chiquito and Frankie & Benny’s. Old Orleans had also been condemned for dirty and dangerous conditions by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, and in September 2007 Nando’s in Crawley was found to be employing illegal immigrants.
Of the restaurants in this report, only Loch Fyne had any kind of policy on the welfare of animals killed for meat, and even this was not externally certified by, for instance, the Soil Association or RSPCA. With the exception of a few other items labelled as being free range or organic, meat eaters therefore have to assume that what they are consuming is factory farmed.
Another level of cruelty is reached, according to animal rights campaigners, in the production of foie gras. This expensive product is the result of geese or ducks being force-fed through tubes to artificially fatten them and make their livers abnormally swollen. Foie gras has been banned by the city of Chicago in the USA and is being phased out by the state of California. In 2007, a councillor in York tried to follow suit. The council ruled that an all-out ban was beyond its remit but forbade the sale of foie gras on council property, and passed on its position to the city’s powerful tourist industry. A UK government minister also called for a consumer boycott.(3)
Of the restaurant brands on the table, only the Living Room sold foie gras as of November 2007. Companies with shareholder relationships to TGI Friday’s, Carluccio’s and Piccolino also served it.
Vegetarian and vegan provision
Vegetarianism is a fairly mainstream dietary choice nowadays, and with the help of a few celebrities even veganism is a well-known ethical or health stance. So it is surprising and depressing how poorly vegetarians and especially vegans are served in chain restaurants. After all, even the traditional demon of food campaigners, McDonald’s, has Vegetarian Society approved options.
All the restaurants on the table offered vegetarian options, although those at Hard Rock Cafe and Loch Fyne were particularly narrow, and many were unimaginative and nutritionally limited. None were certified by the Vegetarian Society, although JD Weatherspoon was shortlisted in the 2005 Vegetarian Society Awards, and none gave information about vegan options, forcing vegan customers to depend on often limited staff knowledge about what is acceptable to specific diets. Wagamama and JD Weatherspoon did tackle this on their websites. None of the other restaurants offered soya or other dairy-free alternatives.
It doesn’t have to be this bad!
Charlotte Jarman of Ethical Eats insists that the restaurant industry can be more sustainable, and some restaurants and pub-eateries are exploring good practice in different aspects of their work. At the Bread & Roses pub in Clapham, London, for example, staff in this notoriously low-paid and insecure sector are given proper contracts negotiated with the T&G union. These include sick and holiday pay and an hourly rate significantly above that of most pub staff.
Meanwhile at Isinglass in Urmston, Manchester, Julie Bagnoli says that “When we opened four years ago many chefs openly laughed at the idea of serving fair trade, local, often organic food as a quick road to bankruptcy. The ‘clever’ way was describe it as Tatton Park venison, organic beef etc and substitute the cheapest possible (usually imported) alternative to make maximum profit.” But, says Julie, they persevered. “We knew enough people who ate ethically at home and would want to dine somewhere that delivered what it said, and that they would pay the small necessary premium. By collecting vegetables, lamb etc direct from the farmer we could save money while paying more than the wholesalers’ price, a win-win situation which avoided the usual rank exploitation of primary producers.”
Isinglass and Bread & Roses are both small, independent outlets with the flexibility to experiment on how to implement their ethics. But with the resources available to large companies to research the issues, Charlotte Jarman sees no reason why such ethics shouldn’t extend throughout the sector. “The chains really should be able to pay for themselves in getting advice,” she says.
Links and further reading
- Wider information on outlets selling vegetarian and organic food (although not necessarily fully certified) can be found in the Vegetarian Britain and Vegetarian Europe guides, available through the Vegetarian Society and the Organic Directory (annual, published by Green Books), also available online at www.soilassociation.org
- London Food Link has information on both the Ethical Eats and Greener Curry programmes, and downloads of the One Planet Dining and Recipe for a Greener Curry reports.
- London Citizens’ living wage campaign
1 The Times online 15/09/2007
2 www.meatinfo.co.uk 21/08/2007
3 The Times online 04/08/2007
4 Action on Salt & Health press release 19/10/2007
5 Soil Association press release 30/11/2006
6 http://icsurreyonline.icnetwork.co.uk 26/09/2007
7 Environmental News Service 27/7/2007 “50 Dirtiest US Power Plants Named.”
8 www.blackstone.com 18/5/2007
9 Rainforest Relief Hard Rock Cafe campaign sheet, viewed 4/10/2007
10 www.hse.gov.uk, viewed by ECRA 7/11/2007
11 www.wealden.gov.uk press release dated 4/4/2007
12 www.kentuckyfriedcruelty.com 13/11/2007