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Farm to Fable: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam ponders curbing food misrepresentation

TAMPA — Florida's agriculture commissioner Wednesday said the state needs to better understand the definition of "Fresh from Florida" and more thoroughly police the claims restaurateurs make to customers.

Adam Putnam's comments were spurred by the Tampa Bay Times' investigative series, called Farm to Fable, which published in April and exposed food misrepresentations at Florida's so-called farm-to-table restaurants and farmers markets.

Before publication, Putnam declined all interviews and channeled comments through his spokesmen. But since Farm to Fable was widely circulated and picked up by national news outlets, Putnam has started to speak.

On Tuesday, he made his first statements to the Times, vowing to crack down on deceptive practices and misuse of the state's Fresh from Florida marketing program. And on Wednesday, he went into much more detail on a sidewalk outside Cruise Terminal 6 of Port Tampa Bay. He was there to discuss exporting Florida foods at the first Fresh from Florida Export Summit.

In a 15-minute interview, Putnam talked to me about the investigation and changes it might cause at the state level.

 

What kind of changes do you foresee for the Fresh from Florida program?

We were already assessing the rules on how the Fresh from Florida logo could be used. In the past, the attitude had been that we were just happy that anybody wanted it, happy that it added value. That had been the attitude of prior administrations: How do we get this thing to grow legs? Now that it has matured, we need to build a box around what's an appropriate use of it. . . .

The logo is predominantly used on field-packed items. So when heads of lettuce go into the box, the box is preprinted with a Fresh from Florida logo. It's pretty simple. It gets more complicated as value-added items have sought to use it: Fresh from Florida beer, Fresh from Florida seasoning, Fresh from Florida barbecue sauce, Fresh from Florida jelly. That's where it gets interesting. And what we're evaluating is differentiating "Fresh from Florida" and "from Florida," so that (a product) gets credit for being a locally produced or processed item, but it doesn't mean that the salt was mined in Florida that forms the basis of the barbecue butt rub. That's the differentiation that's going on.

What you highlighted in your articles was blatant, illegal misrepresentation under the restaurant statute that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation is supposed to enforce.

 

But as we know, it's very hard for them to do that. They're not looking for that kind of thing. They're not in a position to say, "That's not an heirloom tomato, that's a conventional tomato." There aren't the tools or the time.

They are the restaurant regulator. They are in the restaurant, they have access to invoices, to the kitchen, to the chefs, to the prep cooks. What I view my role as is — this is why we've organized a meeting with (DBPR Secretary Ken Lawson) — how can we provide our resources, whether it's testing equipment or training of their inspectors on the agricultural side of the house, so they're not looking at all tomatoes as being equal? Those are the types of things where I think we can play a supporting role to their investigators who are in the restaurants every day.

 

From a consumer standpoint, do you envision a tool that might enable a diner to go into a restaurant and figure out what on the menu might have come from Florida?

Yes, we have that on our website. It was not designed with restaurant fraud in mind; it was designed with, "I'm on my way to the grocery store, what can I expect is in season from Florida?" We have a very simple calendar that identifies what items from Florida are in season during which months. It was originally designed for grocery stores but it could be applied to restaurants.

 

Farmers in Florida really feel that they've been kneecapped in recent years by restaurants fraudulently claiming to serve their stuff.

I was talking to a rice farmer in Jacksonville last week about this. He said, "I've walked into restaurants and said, 'You need to erase my farm because you haven't bought from me in a year.' "

 

Is there anything the state can do to make restaurants toe the line?

Restaurants need to be held to account on the misrepresentation law that's on the books. When you walk into a farm-to-table-themed restaurant, there's an expectation that they will meet that brand promise. And you probably have an expectation that you're paying extra for that. That's built into your experience: "I'm going to pay extra for the experience of this locally grown, Fresh from Florida type of meal." The customer is being defrauded because they've paid extra for that brand promise. And in many instances, the farmer, whose name is still on that chalkboard from six months ago, is also having their brand undermined. They may be struggling to pay their bills when this restaurant is using their good name to up-charge customers.

 

Is there any way the state would consider implementing a legal definition for "local," or some of these terms like "sustainable" or "natural"?

The feds have struggled with that for a long time. I'm not aware of a conversation going on about a legal definition. That's an interesting question. In your research, is anyone doing this?

 

No one is. Publix, Safeway, Whole Foods, everyone has vastly different definitions. And with the outdoor markets, why don't they have to label country of origin? Why do they operate by different rules?

It certainly reinforces how important Florida's country of origin labeling law is. We were the first in the nation to have it. In fact, the federal law is modeled on the Florida law. And that was pretty controversial at the time, but consumers need to know where their food comes from and then they can make their own decisions.

 

Then why do the outdoor markets get a free pass?

Because they're small and not a major part of commerce. The idea of applying the same bureaucracy to them as you would to a major corporation is not something that had ever been seen as a necessity. It's the same reason you don't treat garage sales the same as Walmart.

 

Why not require the market managers to label resellers?

My instinct on that — but this is all taking on a new level of thought for me — is that I am much more upset about people being cheated because they're paying more for something they're not getting at a restaurant. If they're at a farmers market, they probably aren't paying a premium. They may be being fed a story that's not so about their free-range chickens back home, but the real economic harm that is occurring to consumers, the greatest economic harm, is occurring at that restaurant. That gives me a lot more heartburn.

The farmers markets should adopt whatever policy they think is appropriate. Some of them are going to take a more pure view and others are just happy to have a wide range of vendors that attracts a wide range of people to try to encourage people to come downtown on a Saturday or Sunday. There are a lot of motivations for why farmers markets are popping up in towns.

At the end of the day, if that farmers market is going into a community that's underserved and they're selling fresh fruits and vegetables, that's still a win. We have supported, through grants, farmers markets and gardens in Overtown and in downtown Orlando's Parramore area, legitimate food deserts. It doesn't keep me up at night that they're eating Washington or North Carolina apples at a Florida farmers market. I'm excited about people taking an interest in fresh fruits and vegetables.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

Farm to Fable: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam ponders curbing food misrepresentation 04/27/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2016 9:36pm]
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