Menu Fraud Squad Targets Frozen Fare, But Where’s the ‘Fresh’ Honesty Care?

By John Saulnier, FFB Editorial Director

Now that Italy’s highest civil court has affirmed that a restaurant operator was guilty of fraud for not informing diners that certain items on the menu were previously frozen, we only wish that judges would proffer a proper legal definition for “fresh food.” And if it should contain the words “never been frozen,” rather than describe a state of quality, then a miscarriage of justice will have occurred.

justice palace

In upholding a lower bench ruling last week at the Palazzo di Giustizia (Palace of Justice) in Rome, Supreme Court of Cassation Judge Emanuela Gai opined: “Even the mere availability of frozen food, if not identified as such on the menu, constitutes attempted commercial fraud.”

The reference to “availability” was invoked specifically to counter the Milan restaurant owner’s contention that since no customers were being served, or even on the premises at the time inspectors discovered frozen fare in his kitchen freezer, there was no evidence that anybody had been defrauded.

Judge Gai, not impressed with the argument, called the plea “manifestly unfounded.” She then slapped the restaurateur with a fine of €2,000 plus legal fees – substantially more than an initial penalty of €200 levied against him by a lower court in November of 2015.

The crux of this case in the jurist’s mind apparently centered around the lack of written notification, by way of menu description, that certain food on offer wasn’t fresh. But what exactly is fresh? Perhaps the restaurant operator’s lawyer missed an opportunity to point out that the opposite of fresh is not frozen, but rather stale or spoiled.

Should restaurateurs be required to tell customers that salads featuring non-frozen vegetables picked days or even weeks prior to plating are really not at all fresh? Will waiters be obliged to inform those ordering seafood dishes made from wild-caught or farm-raised fish of the actual date of harvest to authenticate so-called freshness? Surely a fish out of water for more than a day is no longer fresh.

Oregon SU logoIt’s worth repeating the words of Ann Colonna, sensory and consumer program manager at the Food Innovation Center in Portland, an off-campus Oregon State University (OSU) experiment station in the USA, as reported in this FrozenFoodsBiz BUZZ space during March:

“Frozen seafood, when handled correctly, is of higher quality than most never-frozen ‘fresh’ fish on the market. Flash freezing refers to a process by which objects are frozen very quickly – often only a few hours after harvest – by subjecting them to temperatures well below water’s freezing point. Flash freezing is used in the food industry to quickly freeze perishable food. Rapid freezing reduces the size of ice crystals, causing less damage to cell membranes. Flash freezing locks in the freshness and quality of a fish the day it was caught and processed – whereas many fresh fillets may have been in the grocery seafood display case for eight days or more. In fact, most ‘sushi-grade’ fish has been previously frozen in order to kill bacteria and parasites. Frozen fish also offers more flexibility to consumers, who can defrost as needed instead of worrying they have to use it or lose it.”

repubblica italianaSo clearly, fresh-frozen is fresher than fresh unless the so-called “fresh food” has just been picked or harvested. With this in mind, Italian restaurant operators and their kitchen cousins around the world serving up dishes containing fresh-frozen components should not hesitate to proudly proclaim their super cool roots and origins. And while the Italians are at it, perhaps Judge Gai should insist that many if not most of non-frozen items on the menu be labeled as “previously fresh.”

Buon Appetito!


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