A Question for Food Bloggers

The Lead Up

I’ve been wrestling with a question for some time that arose from a lunch I had with a respected food editor in Kansas City.  We were talking about food blogging and my lunch guest mentioned that she was a member of  the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ), an association which provides services to food journalists.  She told me that AFJ is interested in courting food bloggers since many of us are serious journalists, which I thought was absolutely fantastic.

I would love it if my readers had tangible evidence that when they could come to BlogWellDone.com, they will be treated to content that meet a certain basic level of journalistic integrity.  I was ready to sign up right then and there just thinking about me–the journalist.  I was also thinking what it would mean for my readers to see my AFJ membership and know that this is a blog that takes journalistic standards seriously.


There’s only one problem.  AFJ asks its members to adhere to a very strict code of ethics.  The full code of ethics can be found on the AFJ site, but the part that seems most relevant to my inner turmoil is this:

(1) Gifts, favors, free travel or lodging, special treatment or privileges can compromise the integrity and diminish the credibility of food journalists, as well as that of their employers. This includes commercially sponsored contests. Such offers should be avoided. An example is a contest promoting specific food products that is open to food journalists only.

In other words, members of AFJ pay for the meals they review from their own pocket.  They do not accept gifts, be it books in the mail, meals from chefs, products to review, etc.  In exchange, their readers can be fairly sure that the journalists are being objective and are not being unduly swayed by gifts from a chef, restaurant, producer, etc.  I applaud that.  I really do. 

And Therein Lies the Rub

See, here’s the thing.  I do not support my family as a professional blogger.  The money I make blogging pays for the website and defrays (though certainly does not eliminate) the cost of ingredients.

The question I have to ask myself is could I afford to keep blogging at the level I do if I had to buy the products I review?  Maybe, maybe not.  The greater question is if I had to pay for them, could I justify the expense along with the time I already invest that keeps away from my family?  I’m thinking no.

The problem, of course, is that to some readers, the fact I don’t pay for the products makes all my reviews at least somewhat suspect.  The whole point of paying your own way is to avoid any sort of conflict of interest, which, again, is why I applaud the AFJ for taking the stand that they do.  However, I’m just not sure that I could to live up to their code of ethics and maintain BlogWellDone.com’s current quality standards.

My Own Code of Ethics

In my own defense, I do have a code of ethics.  Ultimately, I am here to serve you as the reader and I need to keep that in mind.

For instance, that is why you will notice anytime I talk about a product or restaurant, I am fully transparent about what I paid for and what I didn’t.  Basically, I’ve decided that a review copy or a review product cannot make me say nice things, all it really it does is prod me to actually reivew that item.  Is it perfect?  Perhaps not.  Is that good enough for my readers?  I hope so, but you tell me.

An Open Forum

So now you know where I stand.  To recap, I currently accept review copies of books and products.  I don’t plan on discontinuing this, even if it means not joining AFJ.  Still, I believe in standards and I believe in ethics, but for now, having to pay my way into every food event, track everything that might be construed a gift and pay it back, and turning down review copies and product is not something I can do.

As readers, how do you feel about that?  Is it enough for me to openly say I was sent a box or a product or a book rather than paying for it?  Does it make a difference on a recipe vs. a product review?

As a food blogger, how do you feel about the AFJ offer?  Would you give up all the review copies and product in exchange for membership?  Is there a middle ground somewhere?  Could the AFJ create a special designation for bloggers (or writers) who don’t support themselves writing about food?

Please weigh in if you have a thought.  I’m genuinely curious to know what everyone thinks and I vow to take whatever feedback you give and incorporate it into my editorial policy in the future.

Thanks!  Enjoy!


  1. Are you even eligible? I’m curious about the comment that the AFJ is courting food bloggers, because as I read the following eligibility requirements, you couldn’t even qualify to be an associate member. I have taught food writing and written a little bit for publication but concluded that I wasn’t eligible because I work for an educational institution and do most of my food writing for free.

    Because of the specific focus of AFJ, membership is limited. Bylaws outline rules for membership.
    Active members are those persons employed or contracted in positions as reporters, writers or editors by a legitimate news or media organization that is supported by advertising and/or paid subscriptions and who spend not less than fifty percent (50%) of their time on food news.
    Associate members are those persons employed or contracted as reporters, writers or editors by one or more legitimate news or media organizations that are supported by advertising and/or paid subscriptions and are not house organs of any organization or movement, such as trade associations, advocacy groups and government agencies, and are responsible for or spend not less than fifty percent (50%) of their time on food news.
    No member can receive remuneration from producers, processors, merchandisers of food or food-related products or similar commercial entities.

  2. To me being ethical means that a site tells it’s readers if they’ve been given compensation no matter how small by any company they’re reviewing. It also requires that you disclose if the any major players at that company are relatives or friends.

    Let’s face it, we all find out about good things to eat & drink via word of mouth, family,friends, co-workers, social media just means that network is greatly expanded to the benefit of all! To me being ethical means that you fully disclose & that you also feature products you love & endorse even when you’re not being given anything to do so.

    I for one think you do a bang up job on all counts! I am a foodie, you taking the time to use a product and produce an exacting review of it, helps me stretch my foodie $$ by enabling me to make informed choices about products/ restaurants that might be pretty pricey. You getting a product or fee out of that certainly seems reasonable to me!

  3. Robin,

    I thought I was eligible. It’s an interesting question, but my guess is that I am. Maybe she meant other food bloggers.

    I guess my post could be construed as I had an application thrust in my hand or something. More I got excited about joining the organization and that traditional media was considering food blogging.

    I can ask my lunch guest about whether you would be eligible.

  4. well, i think it is good enough to specify you are given a free meal to review a restaurant or whatsoever, just so the reader can understand that the review might not be as honest as it can me… i mean sometimes if given free meal, i would not review on certain dish that taste bad…

    i certainly don’t like food blogger who blog about a food review or other review giving an impression that they pay for it when they could at least mentioned they are invited to a food review of something

  5. With all due respect to the AFJ, I think their guidelines are outdated. The Blog With Integrity pledge http://www.blogwithintegrity.com is a perfectly good guideline. I wouldn’t mind if traditional media got paid or got freebies as long as they disclosed them as well as any advertising relationships their publication has with the subject of the article.

  6. While on the 52 Donuts journey, I was conflicted as to how I should handle offers of free donuts (well, other than to eat them of course). I ultimately decided to rarely mention to donut shop owners or employees that I was a food blogger. This did eliminate the offers of free food but it also eliminated much of the great conversation and delightful donut history stories shared when I mentioned the blog. Like you, I always divulged what was given to me at no charge.

    On this years 52 journey, I am baking in my own kitchen and not buying baked goods. I have a new perspective on this dilemma. Now I am more than happy to accept products and ingredients for review and inclusion in my recipes. The change in thinking comes from the increase in my grocery bill. It does get very expensive to work with high quality ingredients, buy new bakeware, cookbooks, etc…I do think it is possible to write an ethical review of a product provided at no charge and I also think the companies providing such items expect honest reviews, even if that is a bit negative.

  7. Good question, Chris. Like Jean, Vivien and Suebob, I think that you would retain the integrity of your blog via adequate disclosure [and thanks for linking to the Blog with Integrity Pledge, Suebob!].

    So long as bloggers are honest about any conflict of interest surrounding the products & services they review, readers should be trusted to make up their own mind about whether or not they take notice of the content.

    H 🙂

  8. Can’t believe I just left this comment in the wrong post! Brain fart.

    RJ Flamingo Says:
    March 12th, 2010 at 10:05 am
    This topic, or something resembling this topic, seems to crop up about every 6 months, like clockwork. Federal law says that as bloggers, we must disclose & that’s quite sufficient for me. I’m including the link to my own blogpost of a year ago, treating something similar.


    Although I’ve become more of a food blogger than I was at the time of writing that, my feelings on the subject haven’t.

  9. Chris,

    I have to say that I agree with the AFJ. Of course, if this is your hobby and it’s fun for you, you can always do whatever you want. But I’m not sure you can expect to be taken as seriously as you would be if your paid for the food you review. It just depends on how seriously you want to be taken.

    Hard news journalists pay. Restaurant reviewers pay. Roger Ebert pays. Consumer Reports pays – and then they auction off what they bought to staff and friends to recoup some of the cost. It’s the only way to be 100% neutral.

  10. Todd,

    That’s an interesting take. And one I’m a little more surprised more people don’t take.

    So the question to seriousness goes… does that apply to recipes I write? How does it affect recipes I create that use products I was given?

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