GONE, we hope, are the days of chalk in flour or horse meat labelled as beef, but food fraud is still happening in Scottish restaurants. The breaches fall under two categories, as identified by the National Food Crime Unit – misrepresentation – “marketing or labelling a product to wrongly portray its quality, safety, origin or freshness”, and substitution – “replacing a food or ingredient with another substance that is similar but inferior”.

The fraud is taking place on restaurant menus, falsely adding brand names and promises of provenance to justify charging higher prices.

Susie and Steven Anderson run East Coast Cured, an award-winning artisan charcuterie company in Leith. Their dry-cured meat products are distinctive and include a fennel salami and a whisky-oak smoked nduja. They first discovered their brand name was being fraudulently used while celebrating their anniversary in a top Scottish hotel.

“I spotted East Coast Cured on the room service menu,” Susie says, “The hotel had been a customer but hadn’t ordered for nine months. I ordered a platter and when it came it wasn’t our meat. On the menu they listed very specific products of ours, and it was like they’d tried to match the descriptions with other meat.”

Initially the hotel staff were apologetic but as the complaint was passed up the ranks, and the Andersons queried how long the fake products had been on the menu, hostility grew.

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“The GM got quite threatening with us. We tried to escalate it but they are owned by a massive hotel group. They did take it off their menu but we never got any compensation. It was horrifically anxiety inducing, and dragged on for months,” says Susie.

The next offender was a five-star hotel. This time the Andersons were tipped off by a friend who had ordered an “East Coast Cured” charcuterie platter and been unimpressed by the quality. This hotel had never been a customer, it was not their produce.

“Initially the chef lied, he said it was ours and he’d bought it from wholesalers, but we don’t work with any. Eventually he crumbled and admitted it,” says Susie. In this instance some compensation was paid.

Since then there have been further breaches at different businesses, many claiming kitchen mistakes, raising questions about traceability and kitchen procedures.

“I now have a standard email that I send,” says Susie. “We’re lucky because we sell direct so we know where all our meat is going, so if something pops up on social media, we know whether we are supplying that person. It just shouldn’t happen. I know in restaurants sometimes you run out. But if we ever have to substitute ingredients then we have to tell people, legally.”

Wendy Barrie (below) publishes The Scottish Food Guide, The Scottish Cheese Trail and Scottish Farm Shop Guide. She travels frequently interviewing producers and restaurateurs and has become adept at spotting food fraud.

The National: Wendy Barrie is a well-known food writer and smallholder and will be part of the Scottish Smallholder Festival at Forfar Mart

Often producers ask her to check restaurants when she is travelling: “ I’ve popped in and taken a photo of the menu and I’ve sent it back to them and said, ‘Yep, they’re still claiming it’s yours’.”

Barrie says: “It is not that unusual, but I suspect the ones I find are the tip of the iceberg. In every case with producers, they have ordered once and then left it on the menu as if they still are using them but gone down in price to something pedestrian. Just one order in every case, and they think that legitimises them. I think it’s catastrophic for the producers, it’s appalling.”

Menu fraud gets more complex with raw ingredients, I hear of “wild” trout that’s farmed, “line-caught” cod from trawlers, and “East Lothian samphire” imported from Israel.

Guy Grieve ran The Ethical Shellfish Company from 2010-2021 with his former wife Juliet. The company’s main product was hand-dived scallops, carefully sourced on Mull. Diving for scallops is labour intensive and weather dependent but has far less impact on the marine environment than dredging.

Over their years of operation their brand often appeared on menus in restaurants that they either didn’t supply, or supplied infrequently.

Grieve explains how unscrupulous chefs navigate this: “You’ll get a chef who wants to make a mark up, gets a small amount of dived scallops and a large amount of dredged and sells them all as dived. So he’s got his grey area for food standards. He can say ‘I’ve got these all from a named dive supplier. The customer is getting 20% dived and 80% dredged but he’s got his bit of story.”

Game supplier Johnny Rutherford of Burnside Farm Foods has experienced this many times: “There are restaurants who still name us as their game supplier but we haven’t supplied for years. Or places that buy something from you, and then not again for six months just to keep your name on the menu.”

With game Rutherford has a further concern, the “back-door” trade: “I’m always shocked that chefs will buy unregulated game direct from a shoot. The big concern is how it’s processed, who’s checking and inspecting it? They know if they had an issue they wouldn’t be able to cover their backs. To save a few quid that amazes me. We can always show traceability of invoices, product, batch numbers for all our products.”

ALL the producers stress that honest chefs far outnumber the questionable ones. Rutherford says: “It’s just the one or two penny pinchers who think they can get away with it”.

“The really great chefs would understand when we couldn’t supply,” says Grieve, “Any restaurant that is seriously and honourably buying dived scallops will know who’s diving for them. It’s a point of pride, at least it was with all of our chefs, who were just dying to tell you right down to the fishing numbers of the boat.”

The line between marketing and mis-selling is a fine one. Grieve feels strongly that integrity matters more.

“Marketing is how you communicate with your customers. Do you want to be the kind of brand owner who pedals lies? Food fraud is pretty much the worst kind of fraud that you can ever have, because you quite literally get people to swallow your lies and make it part of their intimate physiology. How cynical is that?”

For producers, the impact is financial, reputational and emotional. At East Coast Cured, many customers buy direct after sampling the product in a restaurant, so associating an inferior product with their brand is deeply concerning. There’s also a fear of being wrongly associated with food poisoning outbreaks, or allergy mislabelling.

For many small producers it’s deeply personal too, as Susie Anderson says: “It’s our family business and it’s our brand and we care deeply about our product.”

Despite these impacts, in the last five years no reports of ingredient substitution in hospitality have been made to Food Standards Scotland (although FSS confirmed that these situations would constitute an offence if reported and be fully investigated).

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What prevents producers from reporting breaches is a sense of loyalty to the hospitality industry, and the risk of endangering future custom. As Susie Anderson says, “You don’t want to become known as an awkward supplier that’s going to go detective on you, but equally you shouldn’t be ripping off people’s brand.”

It can also be difficult to prove.

As the cost of ingredients rise, more hospitality businesses may reevaluate their purchasing but must be careful to protect their reputations.

Grieve believes that customers would be deeply unhappy if they knew they had been mis-sold.

“There’s a great sense of fair play in the British mindset, and being on the side of the underdog. No one likes a Mr Big who’s ripping people off to make money. Customers would much rather something was unavailable than be sold a lie.”