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Guarding Ethics: Azish Filabi's Keynote at Food and Enterprise Summit

What does it mean to eat and shop “local”? While there is no prescribed territory that those in- and in charge of regulating- the food industry can point to, many will generally agree that it is best to avoid regulation around the appropriate use of the term.

While there is widespread disinterest in having officials involved, when businesses cannot agree on how to accurately define, and ethically use, increasingly common terms like “local” (as well as “sustainable”, “natural’, and “artisanal”) it opens the door to participation by regulatory bodies.

Many are drawn to the local food movement because of a passion for community involvement and realizing their role in local economic development.  Intending to start, manage or invest in a purpose-driven business, however, is not sufficient without establishing mechanisms to guard the company’s ethics in the long-run. This theme was at the center of my recent keynote address at the Food & Enterprise Summit in Brooklyn on April 8 (audio now available via the Heritage Radio Network). Our motivation to be ethical can only take us so far- businesses need proper corporate governance, accountability mechanisms, and strong community ties to help guard their ethics as the company grows.

Guarding your ethics becomes important because of the risk of ethical fading in decision-making- our minds generally frame complex issues more narrowly so we can efficiently process information, and sometimes broader considerations of ethics fade out of the picture when making what seems to simply be a “business decision.” A company that starts with ethics at it’s core (with the goal of sourcing only from local suppliers) could devolve into one that makes a myriad of daily decisions focusing only on dollars and cents of individual transactions.

This very phenomenon was highlighted in an April 16th investigative report by Laura Reiley of The Tampa Bay Times about fraud and the creep of ethical fading in the local food supply chain at several Florida farm-to-table restaurants.  When Reiley asks one restaurateur about why his menu says their shrimp is “Florida wild caught,” when it is actually farm-raised in India, he responds that they try to source local as much as they can, but can’t always make that happen.  At another restaurant, she followed-up with some well-known area farms that were listed on the menu about whether they do indeed sell to that restaurant, and they said they did not. That restaurateur conceded that the menu needs to be updated to reflect their current suppliers.

What may seem like minor deceit by a few (“it’s just an old menu” or “we do this rarely”) breeds cynicism and leaves many feeling duped. Reiley’s report shows that some farmers see their name used for marketing by restaurants, whose relationships with the farms are not consistent or in some cases non-existent. Consumers and farmers both lose when there is lack of integrity around the use of the term local. As one farmer quoted in the article says, “They want the story and they don’t want to pay the price…I consider it theft. It’s stealing our hard work.”

When businesses play fast and loose with terms such as “local” and “artisanal”, they run the risk of government involvement and regulation (as is the case with the FDA’s public call for comments of whether and how to define the term “natural”). Will these terms run the course of other business rules that have become so over-regulated in their specificity they become too expensive for small scale farmers to comply with (as can be the case with the organic labels)? Integrity in the local food supply chain and self-regulation are the best ways to address these issues before it’s too late.