CHOICE membership

You aren't always eating what you think you are (long post so be warned lol)


#1

There is an issue with our love for restaurants and eating out here in Australia that most people will not realise. I think the majority of people when walking into a restaurant and choosing their dishes from the menu don’t question whether or not they are going to get what they expect. In my experience as an apprentice chef I was so appalled at what I learned and saw that I threw the apprenticeship away after doing 2 years, rather than lose my love of eating out.

The issue I’m talking about here is ingredient substitution or misleading customers totally regarding what is in their dish. Without naming the places I worked at I can assure you that they both did this regularly, and in discussion with other apprentices and chefs I found this to be a very common practice in Sydney restaurants, and I assume elsewhere as well since it seems to be both endemic and acceptable practice in the industry. I will mention 2 glaring examples here since they are dishes I personally was involved in preparing, with each case at a separate establishment.

The first was selling frozen produce as fresh (in this case seafood), and also changing the name of the fish to increase the profit margin on the dish. In this fairly expensive restaurant on the harbour my job as an apprentice was the preparation of the seafood and cooking the seafood entrees and working the deep fryer.

A pricey entrée on the menu was fresh soft-shelled crab fried in a tempura batter - the crab actually arrived frozen in boxes and was defrosted in buckets of water prior to cleaning. Another pricey entrée was seared fresh scallops - another frozen item bought by the bag (pre-shelled) and defrosted in buckets of water prior to cooking. The main I was in charge of producing was the fish and chips, described as fresh fillets of Pacific Perch lightly fried in a beer batter (and at $23 per plate for 2 slim pieces and a small basket of chips).

This was in fact frozen basa fillets bought for $2 per kilo boxed, which it was my job then to slice each basa fillet into 3 pieces after the water defrost. This gave the restaurant $69 for every 2 basa fillets once it was on the plate. Now I’m not saying the food was bad because it was frozen, as the customers enjoyed their food and many were return customers. But would they have been happy paying the same prices if they knew the seafood was frozen, and that it was basa fillets they were eating, not Pacific Perch? I highly doubt it. This from a popular, well respected restaurant whose owner has a few in Sydney that are highly regarded.

My other experience as an apprentice showed me that placing the word ‘Organic’ on a menu instantly means you can increase the cost substantially as many people are willing to pay highly for organic food. What they also taught me is people have no idea when eating whether it’s organic or not, as the majority of food we served through the store’s café/restaurant used non-organic produce, but the illusion worked because all the produce on the store shelves was organic. Naturally customers who came into a health food, sustainable organic produce and fair trade store expected that everything coming out of the kitchen would also be those things, especially when labelled.

I know it’s a long post but I feel it’s a major problem that people are getting lied to when it comes to their menu choices, and therefore not making fully informed decisions when they part with their cash for a particular dish. The only way you could be fully confident is either to ask to see the kitchen when you order, including the dry store and cool-rooms (good luck with that), or ask the waiter to show you the ingredients prior to cooking (which will not help with the organic substitution anyway, can’t tell by looking).

You won’t see any government agency get involved with this issue to due to the high cost of compliance checks - thousands upon thousands of eateries would need an army to check them all. All I can suggest I guess is that you politely ask the provenance of any ingredients you might be suspect of, and if eating in an establishment stating they serve organic produce you could either ask for proof or simply check where they put the boxes out (organic produce packaging is always clearly labelled that it’s certified).

I’m not trying to scare people away from eating out (a pleasure I still enjoy), but I do want them to think carefully about whether they are getting what they are paying for when doing so.


#2

Thanks for blowing the whistle. I’m under no illusions that when I order “fish and chips” I’m getting basa fillets unless it’s otherwise stated, in which case it should be a criminal matter for misleading the public in order to get them to part with their $$$. In fact I think it should be a very serious crime.
I can’t wait for Choice to get their teeth into this one. I certainly hope to hear more about this.


#3

Thank you for writing about your experiences @obbigttam.

I’m sure seafood & meat substitution is a widespread practice, and not just in restaurants. This is unlikely to change until there is legislative change to accurately & correctly label seafood & meat, with a checking regime to ensure compliance.


#4

Thanks for blowing the whistle, @obbigttam. Choice does a great job of outing these sorts of scams, but they don’t have the resources to do anything like what’s needed, and governments gave up any pretence of consumer protection years ago. Sadly it’s a case of caveat emptor these days.


#5

Not surprised by that actually…Anyway of cutting costs some places will do it.Will it work in the long run.Probably some will get caught out if they hand out a few under cooked meals.Perhaps send Gordon Ramsey to some of these places he will sort them out a aussie version of the show would be great lol


#6

Thanks @obbigttam, I’ll raise the issue with our investigations team.


#7

Interesting (and disappointing)!

This kind of conduct appears very likely to breach the consumer law - the law prohibits misleading conduct and misrepresentations, and states that goods need to match descriptions. However, as you’ve pointed out, enforcement is needed in order for the law to have any effect.

I think the ACCC might be interested in this kind of conduct. For instance, here’s a case it took over a product called “Victoria Honey” that wasn’t from Victoria, and wasn’t actually honey - https://www.accc.gov.au/media-release/accc-acts-on-victoria-honey-misrepresentations

However, it might be more likely to pursue a case like the sort you describe if the restaurant in question were a national chain that impacts a lot of consumers and should really know better, rather than a small business. And as you’ve said, compliance checks are resource-intensive, but the ACCC will sometimes go after one prominent law-breaker as a lesson to others.


#8

I’m sure as you state @SarahAgar the actions I’ve described are definitely breaching consumer laws, but unfortunately my faith in the regulatory system as it stands now is close to zero. Sadly I feel it has come to the stage where it is only the consumer that can take real action, either by taking legal action against a business that has wronged them or just not giving that business their custom anymore.
As for the ACCC taking action as a lesson to others, most businesses these days just laugh at them rather than be worried. In all seriousness what incentive is there really for me to do the right thing as a business owner (besides the personal moral standards I might hold that is)? For example if I make $500,000 by doing the wrong thing and get caught out, I will possibly be fined $10,000 for being a naughty boy. I make a sad face and say sorry to the judge, pay my $10,000 fine and go home to count the $490,000 I’m still in front! The only possible lesson I’d learn from the whole exercise is how not to get caught the same way next time. I’ve still made a heap of dirty money at no real consequence to myself, so obviously I would do it all again.
For business to really start taking notice of regulators there needs to be significant penalties for doing the wrong thing, not the slap on the wrist they currently get. Penalties along the lines of fines equalling 25% of the gross money a business made whilst doing the wrong thing AND being forced to refund said monies to those who paid it. A real penalty such as that would have all businesses take notice and really begin to look at how they did things. Imagine a Telco or a bank getting hit with that type of penalty - pretty sure that would shake up their “business cultures” faster than any senate enquiry appearances will lol.


#9

I guess if they’re caught out and get a slap on the wrist then an appropriate online review would be the order of the day and start naming names. The internet is a powerful medium and it could bring a business to it’s knees.


#10

Unfortunately that can be another legal minefield, but this time for the reviewer. Whilst companies are of course happy for people to wax lyrical when they love them, they can get very narky about bad reviews. You have to be very careful with online reviews as action can be taken if anything can be construed as slanderous. Companies are becoming much more aware of their online profiles and reputation, and I’m sure you’ll see more actions against people who write bad reviews in the future. If you cannot prove beyond doubt what it says in your review then you could leave yourself open. There have already been cases taken against restaurant reviewers and with the explosion of social media it won’t take long for corporate lawyers to see the dollar potential in lawsuits. It will be incredibly easy for them to argue that social media does more damage to their clients these days than a newspaper/magazine review does.


#11

Another aspect is that Victoria, for one, refuses to name and shame dodgy eateries that fail health inspections. They are only revealed if they are habitual offenders and successfully fined. The reasoning is most tidy up their operations quickly and negative publicity could put them out of business, and we would not want dodgy operators to go out of business, would we?

I wish government had the same worry for customers who may and sometimes do get ill from contaminated or just bad food that is served in the meantime, even if it is what it is claimed to be on the menu.

This is just another instance of our government/politicians almost universally taking the position “business matters, consumers are there for business to make profits, end of discussion. next.”


#12

Completely agree that current penalties are inadequate! CHOICE called for higher penalties in one of our recent submissions to a review of the Australian Consumer Law, you can read it here - https://www.choice.com.au/shopping/consumer-rights-and-advice/your-rights/articles/consumer-law-review-2016


#14

Thank you for being honest and speaking up. I rarely eat out these days (not for any particular reason) but I would say I have always had a healthy skepticism about what goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant anyway It is a great pity we are being lied to and cheated. A well prepared meal is always a treat but I don’t see how ingredients can be policed effectively. . As a Coeliac so long as they don’t lie to me about gluten free ingredients I will be content enough for the moment.


#15

You really didn’t love to cook or you would have moved on to restaurants where Chefs are passionate about produce… where they are dealing directly with the producers/ farmers.

You post makes many people appear dishonest.

I’ve asked some chefs where to get the best fish etc and they have no problem pointing me to their fish supplier.


#17

You don’t really know what you are talking about since you don’t know me at all but I’ll give you some facts @annaa63. I did love cooking and still do, hence the reason I got so upset about what was happening. If I didn’t love cooking I wouldn’t have cared so much.
An apprentice does not get to pick and choose restaurants where they work. Not all restaurants take on apprentices and the ones that do very often do not have placements open. Sure I would have loved to do my apprenticeship with Peter Gilmore, Luke Perry or Luke Mangan but there were no placements open and such is life.
My post makes many people look dishonest because many people are dishonest! Nowhere in my post did I state that EVERY chef or restaurant was dishonest - I merely stated that it was common practice. Having some chef tell you were to buy the best fish is nice, but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s that fish that arrives on your plate in the restaurant. It’s sad but sometimes in life people say one thing and do another, otherwise we wouldn’t need Choice would we? But I sincerely hope the chefs that you use as piscatorial advisers are the honest ones.
You can’t really comment on what may/may not go on in an industry until you have worked in that industry. Casting aspersions at me because “some chefs” told you were to buy some fish is incredible to say the least.


#18

You know what? We save up our money and go to Europe and North Africa to eat delicious food. We are just so over $250 plus meals for two in Sydney which just aren’t good enough for the money and overpriced disappointment all round.


#19

Many people are dishonest. Wakey Wakey :grinning: You are shooting the messenger.


#20

Well spoken. Thank you for your post.


#21

Basa in my opinion should not be considered a suitable edible fish over carp, both are fresh water dwellers and all basa is farmed in Asia, in unknown and unregulated fish farms. It is interesting to note that getting quality fish these days in any “fish and chip” is an unlikely event. All will be from frozen imported supplies. My family have regrettably stopped eating fish and chips in inner Sydney, due to the unknowns and both my kids detest basa’s taste. One way to ensure the progeny of the food is to shop at co-ops and markets where you can talk to the suppliers. Eating out is too expensive in Sydney, the fitout and rental costs will ensure that cheaper substitutions will appear on menus from the less scrupulous, advertised or otherwise.


#22

That’s certainly a good way to get truly authentic cuisines lol. And depending on where you choose to eat out and how often you do so, your savings for overseas trips would add up quicker than most people think. :slight_smile: