Locally sourced produce may be the dish of the day but contract caterers must apply stringent health and safety checks to new suppliers before grabbing a slice of the pie
By Melanie Edgehill
24 July 2008
When Gordon Ramsay speaks, people take notice. And that's exactly what happened recently when the TV chef suggested that restaurants should be fined if they are found to be using out-of-season produce. It was a bold statement - and one that didn't do him many favours. Within minutes, countless pairs of eyes were scouring the menus in Ramsay's restaurants in an attempt to find the smallest shred of evidence that would trip him up. It didn't take long to find some ammunition.
Desserts based on tropical fruits were noted in some venues, while others questioned how caviar, Bresse poultry or French cheese could be classified as 'local'. A clarification from Gordon Ramsay Holdings was issued a short time later - along with a thick wedge of humble pie.
Food for thought
Ramsay's comments highlight what a complicated and often misleading debate the local/seasonal food sourcing topic is. Environmental impact is one of the driving forces behind the debate but consider this: if you buy a packet of green beans out of season in the UK, you are likely to generate more CO2 by driving the six miles to your local supermarket than is produced by flying green beans from Kenya where they have been produced using only manual labour and no machines.
A lot of businesses involved in the workplace catering industry are trying to gain a competitive edge by boasting about how they are doing their bit for the environment and supporting local food producers. The reality is often somewhat different. Some caterers say they are sourcing entirely locally and seasonally when clearly they're not. The problem is individual interpretation of a discipline that has quickly become trendy and attractive.
At Catermasters, a contract catering specialist established in 1989, we aim to source fruit, vegetables and bakery products from suppliers that are close to our outlets, but get our meat from a butcher in Coventry close to head office. We do this because the butcher offers exceptional quality. Gordon Ramsay buys his prime cuts of meat from the same source, but we use the cheaper cuts from the same animal. It's an excellent quality solution for products like minced beef.
Is it local?
Ideally, we would source ingredients within a 10-mile radius of the workplace kitchen but capable suppliers are often hard to find - even with today's supposed high demand for local produce.
Catermasters has more than 150 suppliers - nearly all of which are specific to each contract - but it wasn't easy to arrive at that number. For instance, we learned that a local farm shop in Oxfordshire was offering some excellent produce. We went along to try and fix up a supply agreement but because the business fell short of what we require when it came to our health and safety and due diligence checks, we couldn't use it as one of our partners. Local businesses can be excellent when it comes to supplying produce of exceptional quality but they often let themselves down by not being geared up to supply in bulk or not having formal procedures and quality standards that businesses like ours require. In a lot of cases it's understandable because many are essentially traditional farmers. But it does make our job more challenging - particularly in certain areas of the country.
There are regional variations when it comes to the popularity and general interest in the whole local/seasonal sourcing debate. Some of our clients are extremely keen on local produce - particularly in a city like Oxford - and this is reflected by the fact that a large proportion of local suppliers are geared up for business.
The 'feel good' factor
The benefits of sourcing food locally and seasonally are clear. There is a 'feel good' factor associated with eating local produce. The quality is normally better, the flavour is nearly always stronger and it is satisfying to be supporting local companies that are passionate about their produce.
However, there are important disadvantages that should always be considered: the cost of sourcing locally and seasonally is on average 10 per cent higher than conventional alternatives, product availability can be an issue and local sourcing is a more time-consuming discipline to master.
Regardless of these negatives, Catermasters is always looking to discover and 'switch on' new suppliers wherever possible. Once a local producer has been identified, it can take less than a month to start receiving produce ready for cooking. We see and taste the produce on offer, then we send a questionnaire to the supplier that requires it to answer certain questions and meet strict requirements.
Once this has been done we employ a food safety and assurance company to carry out an audit on the prospective supplier to assess the standards that it is working to. Then it's full steam ahead.
No cheap cuts
Contract caterers must be careful not to cut corners when appointing new suppliers because if something goes wrong, the consequences could be serious. Imagine if you were to appoint a butcher without carrying out all of the necessary checks, then there's an outbreak of food poisoning and it's traced back to the meat that you supplied? The repercussions would be massive and it's not a risk that we could ever entertain.
That's the beauty of local and seasonal sourcing in the contract catering business. As long as companies are prepared to invest time in stringently checking out suppliers, the overall benefits to the customer can be extremely satisfying and worthwhile.
People are becoming a lot more aware of where the food on their plate comes from and there is a general feeling in the industry that the advantages of sourcing locally and seasonally far outweigh the negatives.
As long as that remains the case, this approach is here to stay. In fact, the scrutiny that Gordon Ramsay was recently put under can only be regarded as a good thing.
Melanie Edgehill is marketing director at contract catering specialist Catermasters
FM QUICK FACTS
- The cost of sourcing locally and seasonally is 10% higher than conventional methods
- Local producers must pass stringent health and safety and due diligence checks to become suppliers
WHAT'S GOOD WHEN
Purple sprouting broccoli