Romano: The wimps who allow Farm to Fable to exist in Florida

Boca Kitchen Bar Market, Tampa. With the tagline "Local, simple and honest," Boca was among the first farm-to-table restaurants in Tampa Bay, one of the first menus where the assertion "we use local products whenever possible" meant much. But many of the sources listed on their chalkboards claim they do not or never did sell to Boca. On this board, Captain Kirk Morgan is listed as a supplier of red snapper and grouper. The St. Petersburg commercial fisherman says he is not licensed to sell direct to restaurants, has never sold Boca any fish and only catches sheepshead, mullet and jacks. [LAURA REILEY | Times ]
Boca Kitchen Bar Market, Tampa. With the tagline "Local, simple and honest," Boca was among the first farm-to-table restaurants in Tampa Bay, one of the first menus where the assertion "we use local products whenever possible" meant much. But many of the sources listed on their chalkboards claim they do not or never did sell to Boca. On this board, Captain Kirk Morgan is listed as a supplier of red snapper and grouper. The St. Petersburg commercial fisherman says he is not licensed to sell direct to restaurants, has never sold Boca any fish and only catches sheepshead, mullet and jacks. [LAURA REILEY | Times ]
Published April 16 2016
Updated April 18 2016

In its first 48 hours online, a riveting expose by Times food critic Laura Reiley had already been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people across the country.

From the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse to National Public Radio, it seemed the revelation of how restaurants and food vendors used misleading and deceptive claims to entice customers elicited opinions from everyone.

Except, apparently, the people in a position to stop it.

You would think Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam would be the logical choice to solve the problem, but his office said this was a Department of Business and Professional Regulation issue. The folks at DBPR suggested I check back with Agriculture. Gov. Rick Scott's office offered neither opinion nor confirmation that he even knew about the issue or the story.

FARM TO FABLE: At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants, you're being fed fiction

Do you suppose this might explain why the restaurant ruse is allowed to thrive?

The truth is everyone in Tallahassee has dropped the ball, and now they're more concerned with avoiding blame than protecting consumers.

Here's a perfectly Florida version of a bureaucratic breakdown:

Let's begin with Putnam's office, since it's the obvious destination for farming and ranching issues. He's also in charge of consumer protection. It says so on his website:

"Through regulation and mediation we safeguard consumers from unlawful and deceptive business practices.''

So if restaurants are making false claims about where vegetables come from or even the species of a fish, that seems perfectly suited to his job title. Yet Putnam declined several interview requests from Reiley before the series (Part 1 appears in print today) was written.

On Friday, a spokeswoman explained that Agriculture has no authority to inspect restaurants, and so Putnam is essentially powerless in this case. Restaurant inspectors, it was pointed out, come under the purview of DBPR secretary Ken Lawson.

Except the DBPR press office responded to a request to interview Lawson by saying this matter was better suited for the Department of Agriculture.

A spokeswoman later explained that inspectors have never been required to determine the veracity of whether ingredients are locally grown, as some restaurants claim. "Fresh from Florida," a label some restaurants and produce sellers use to show their local bona fides, she pointed out, is an agriculture department promotion.

But what about restaurants serving crab from the Indian Ocean and calling it Florida blue crab? Well, yes, that would be DBPR's responsibility. But inspectors are typically more concerned with sanitation and food safety protocols. They only check food veracity in response to consumer complaints, and typically do it by looking at food boxes or labels.

And so this might be a good time to introduce Gov. Scott to the story.

The DBPR, you see, answers to Scott's office. And, as Reiley pointed out, the department is woefully understaffed in Florida. Other states have far more inspectors with far fewer restaurants. (Lawson later emailed a statement praising the department's food safety record, and said food misrepresentation was a high priority violation.)

Florida's 191 inspectors handle some 40,000 restaurants, which averages out to about 209 establishments each. Considering they're supposed to visit each restaurant at least twice a year, that doesn't seem conducive to thorough examinations. Which sort of fits with Scott's philosophy of fewer regulations, and more freedom for businesses.

And now you can see why restaurants seem unconcerned about embellishing, or even creating fictional stories about the origins or freshness of their foods.

Other than integrity, what's stopping them?

"It's upsetting, really upsetting,'' Rays pitcher Chris Archer, who has visited several of the restaurants cited in Reiley's story, told Times baseball writer Marc Topkin. "You put trust and faith in people and you meet them face to face and they tell you something to your face and then you read about the lack of integrity they have in how they get their food. It's disheartening for sure. Basically it tells you what the bottom line is, and it's not providing the highest quality food.

"I was bummed, I am bummed. I've shared that article with a lot of people.''

So what's the solution?

First of all, it's going to require a leader in Tallahassee. Any leader will do. Someone who cares more about right-and-wrong than hide-and-seek.

Secondly, we need more inspectors and more teeth in the law. Restaurants are not only unafraid of being caught, but the fear of fines is not a strong deterrent.

The punishment should fit the crime. If a restaurant makes false claims on its menu or chalkboard, then it should be required to acknowledge the lie on the menu or chalkboard for several months. I'm guessing negative publicity would scare them more than a fine.

This might not be the most pressing concern in the state, but it does carry emotional baggage. People don't like cheaters, and they don't like to be duped.

They also don't like politicians too wimpy to fight for them.

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