Priya Krishna | The New York Times | August 13, 2018
About four years ago, Gil Rosenberg started eating at Bareburger, an international restaurant chain, after undergoing surgery that left him prone to infection and more inclined to eat organic meat. And the sign outside the Bareburger in Astoria, Queens, where he first ate prominently displayed the word “organic” above the restaurant’s logo.
Last fall, though, Mr. Rosenberg, 51, saw a Pat LaFrieda truck pull up outside a Bareburger in Forest Hills, Queens, to unload beef patties, and noticed that the packages lacked the “certified organic” seal authorized by the United States Department of Agriculture.
He wrote to Bareburger’s chief executive, Euripides Pelekanos, who eventually met with him and told him that 75 to 80 percent of the beef in the burgers was organic. This would count as “made with organic” but not “organic” under the federal regulations.
At this point, the typical customer would have just stopped eating at Bareburger. But Mr. Rosenberg was intent on making change: He went through the restaurant’s trash and found containers for mayonnaise and tomatoes, neither of which had the organic seal. He started distributing fliers outside some outlets that asked, “Is Bareburger REALLY organic?” He called Bareburger’s food suppliers to tell them that the restaurant was misrepresenting itself.
Still, the word “organic” continues to appear on many of Bareburger’s signs and on its packaging. “To me,” Mr. Rosenberg said, “it seems like an attempt to deceive and an attempt to defraud.”
But Bareburger is not necessarily breaking any rules. While farms and other businesses that want to advertise their wares as organic have to answer to certifying organizations that conduct annual inspections for the Department of Agriculture, restaurants do not. A restaurant can seek organic certification if it wants, but is not required to.
Under the department’s current rules, restaurants (characterized as “retail food establishments”) may call their food organic if they have made what Jennifer Tucker, the deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, called a “reasonable” effort to use organic ingredients.
There is no precise definition, however, of what constitutes a reasonable effort, and no monitoring body for enforcement. If the department receives a complaint that a restaurant is falsely billing its food as organic, Ms. Tucker said, it will investigate the claim and if necessary, send a letter asking the owner to stop using the term.