Foodies, beware! Don’t be ripped off by ‘menu fraud’

Keep your eyes out for menu items that look a little fishy.

Keep your eyes out for menu items that look a little fishy. Photo: Getty

Menu fraud is a bizarre behaviour sweeping our cafes and customers need to be aware of it.

Cafes lying about the produce they’re selling rips off both producers and customers, who deserve to be served what they believe they are paying for.

John Susman, managing director of Fish Tales, a seafood industry agency specialising in marketing, sales and distribution, says menu fraud is ‘quite rife.’

“Although not always intentional, it is a real issue.”

Mick Keogh, Commissioner of the ACCC, says while he doesn’t have “exact figures … anecdotally we get a quarter of a million complaints a year”.

Anecdotally we get a quarter of a million complaints [of menu fraud] a year.

“The option of, say, a specifically branded steak, wasn’t traditionally a feature of our food sector, but over the last decade provenance and credence has emerged and consumers actively seek out these characteristics,” Mr Keogh says.

Restaurant critic John Lethlean says customers should ask for their money back if they learn they have eaten something that wasn’t actually delivered.

“I’m sure I have eaten fish X believing, from the menu, that it is fish Y,” Mr Lethlean says.

Mr Lethlean, Mr Susman and Mr Keogh all agree that a branded product can be sold for more than an unbranded one.

“By putting a brand name on the menu, they [restaurants and cafes] can justify higher prices. But when they mislead consumers to the origin of that product they are pocketing the margin and hijacking the premium brand’s value,” Mr Keogh says.

He also says if a customer eats an inferior product when it’s otherwise branded, it can do damage or distort the branded product’s reputation.

“If it doesn’t taste nice, a consumer isn’t going to seek it out again.”

As a producer of a deluxe range of mueslis and porridges. I cherry-pick cafes to serve my products on their menus with named reference.

Friends often mention that they have seen my product at a particular place but on one occasion, I discovered that my product was named on a menu at a Melbourne café I’d never sold to.

I visited the café to clear up the confusion and come to a happy resolution. Asking the chef about the source of ‘Flip Shelton’s five-grain porridge’ listed on the menu, he told me he mixed it himself.

I suggested to the owner that the fair and honest thing to do was to buy some bags of my product after months of selling something that wasn’t mine.

But he said he had enough stock (but not my product that was listed). He didn’t know if his clients would like my product. He didn’t want to pay for an expensive product. His (one page) menu was too expensive to reprint.

A Consumer Affairs Victoria spokesperson says under Australian Consumer Law, it is illegal for a business to mislead or deceive consumers in order to obtain a sale.

The maximum criminal penalty for misleading and deceptive conduct is $1.1 million for a company or $220,000 for an individual.

Consumers can be aware of a few things. If a menu is claiming seasonal produce from the local area and it’s the wrong season, that’s probably not true.

“Another thing to do is grab your phone and do a Google check. Send the business an email and ask if it’s their product or not. You might not get the email back in time for that meal, but you will know not to go back there,” says Mr Keogh.

Mr Keogh says that while he is reluctant for consumers to “out” a café, brand owners can alert their loyal customers about a false claim.

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