Midmarket restaurant chains have reacted angrily to criticism from the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) that they are refusing to co-operate with its menu transparency campaign.
The MLC, which launched its campaign calling for more information on the origins of products last autumn, said that while it was pleased with the response of top-end fine-dining restaurants, it was disappointed with the reaction of midmarket chain restaurants.
Whitbread, JD Wetherspoon, Wolverhampton & Dudley and Mitchells & Butlers defended their position, saying that the issue was not a top priority and did not appeal to their customers.
But Richard Lowe, marketing director at the MLC, described their excuses as "bogus". He said that, typically, the big chains claimed that their customers were not interested in knowing where food was sourced and that they did not want their menus to resemble a dictionary.
"We think this is very disingenuous," he said. "There are simple steps that can be taken to put the origin of products on a menu - like a footnote explaining to customers that they could enquire from the waiting staff where some of the ingredients, like meat, were sourced from."
If the big chains took this simple step, it would be tremendously positive, he added.
Lowe said the MLC had independent research showing that consumers wanted to know where products, particularly meat, were sourced. He also said they had the right to make an informed choice.
Derek Andrew, managing director of Wolverhampton & Dudley's Pathfinder Pubs, disagreed. "This initiative is not consumer-led," he said. "Our customers tell us they are most interested in the quality of the product, despite what the MLC says. Our business has to be consumer-driven."
JD Wetherspoon said that it sourced its meat from a number of different countries and this made it difficult to include such information on its menus. However, a spokesman added it was in discussions with the MLC.
Whitbread admitted it could trace the origin of all its ingredients but had decided not to follow the MLC's initiative.
Caterer was told: "Our latest research once again shows that customers don't want to be overwhelmed with information when choosing their meals, and haven't expressed a wish for this information at this stage. However, should any customer be interested, they can ask our staff and they will help them."
Mitchells & Butlers said that it would provide information to any guest who has an enquiry about the origin of its meat products. "However," it added, "we do not feel our menus are an appropriate way of communicating this information, as we sometimes need to change the origin of a product at short notice."
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 5 August 2004