The thought of cockroaches in a restaurant's kitchen might make you queasy, but they may not be what should worry you most.
Despite the very strong "yuck factor," as Marion Nestle, a nationally known nutrition scientist and author of Food Politics, labels our visceral reaction to Florida's famed creepy-crawlies, there are far worse things that will actually, physically make us ill. These include foods stored at the wrong temperatures and the cross-contamination of foods.
"I think (cockroaches) are more an index of poor sanitation," said Nestle, who is a professor at New York University. "I'm not aware of documented instances of pathogen contamination of food via cockroach, but I suppose it's theoretically possible. Mostly, there's the yuck factor. If the place can't keep out the cockroaches, what else is getting in there?"
The emergency closure of two downtown St. Petersburg restaurants this spring has set off a wave of concern among diners about the safety of the places where they eat. Do the closures represent an increase in severe infractions in the city's kitchens? Not necessarily, but recent changes to Florida law could result in more closures, especially for repeat offenders.
The Florida House and Senate have passed a bill that would give inspectors greater latitude to focus on restaurants with poor cleanliness records. The measure, which would be effective July 1, 2014, is awaiting the governor's decision. And in January, Florida officially adopted the federal 2009 Food Code and inspection verbiage that classifies violations with greater specificity, allowing inspectors to more effectively police serious offenders.
As of now, each food service establishment in the state is supposed to undergo inspections twice a year by a division of Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation. With this new state measure, the department would adopt a "risk-based" system to "determine inspection frequency for each licensed public food service establishment. The rule must require at least one, but not more than four, routine inspections that must be performed annually."
Ken Lawson, secretary of the DBPR, said his department, which oversees licensing for businesses as diverse as veterinarians and barbers, doesn't perceive restaurants as a "problem child," especially when compared to alcoholic beverages and tobacco, auctioneering, boxing, parimutuel betting and some of the department's other licensees. But, he says, there are individual restaurateurs who are repeat offenders while thousands of other restaurants consistently operate at a high level and require little scrutiny from the state when it comes to health and sanitation.
Thus, problematic restaurants would get multiple surprise or scheduled inspections — and some will receive only one.
So were these two downtown restaurants problematic? According to myfloridalicense.com, St. Petersburg's Acropolis, which was closed for just a matter of hours on May 20, had 61 critical violations between December 2011 and December 2012. In that period St. Petersburg's Ceviche had 19 critical violations. Both cases required a follow-up inspection. Ceviche was closed for 24 hours on April 8.
But by way of comparison, high-profile Cafe Ponte in Clearwater had 19 critical violations between October 2011 and November 2012, and the Refinery in Tampa had six critical violations between July 2011 and September 2012, although in all cases they met inspection standards and didn't require follow-up visits. Their infractions included things like missing pot handles or open beverage containers found on food preparation tables — violations that mostly seem less alarming than bugs.
Evaluating the severity of inspection reports has historically been tricky because "critical" infractions have been all over the map, from the presence of roaches to the absence of a hand-washing sign over the sink. The federal Food Code changed "critical" and "noncritical" to violations categorized as high-priority, intermediate and basic.
The new code describes high-priority violations as those that could contribute directly to a food-borne illness or injury and include items such as improper holding times and temperatures, cross contamination, contaminated equipment and poor personal hygiene.
Interestingly, though, these are not the infractions that tend to cause emergency closures.
"When inspectors identify the presence of vermin in a food service establishment, the inspection is forwarded to Tallahassee headquarters for review and disposition,'' said Samantha Stratton, in the DBPR's office of communications. "Only the director of the Division of Hotels and Restaurants (Diann Worzalla) has the authority to close a food service establishment."
For Ceviche and Acropolis, it was the presence of roaches, in combination with other serious infractions, that prompted the emergency closures. Still, the culprits for most food-borne illnesses lie elsewhere.
Chris Ponte, chef-owner of Cafe Ponte, lists the things that concern him most.
"Proper temperatures are important. We ice our fish twice a day and we just bought a blast chiller which can take things to 32 degrees quickly. I'm careful about temperature danger zones for soups and sauces. And it's important to make sure raw products are not stored on top of cooked products in the walk-in. A lot of this is about training, and it's important that non-English speakers have manuals in their own language."
When asked if less-frequent inspections will have a negative effect on some restaurateurs' behavior, Ponte said, "I think the people who do the things properly are always going to continue to do that. That's their nature. But the people who are slacking off can really hurt the dining public — if they're not meeting standards, they should be scrutinized more carefully."
For the Refinery's Greg Baker, cleanliness is a by-product of him being a hands-on presence in the kitchen.
"I don't go as far as (Thomas) Keller and make everyone alphabetize their cereal boxes, but for me a clean kitchen is a point of pride. I tell my people, if you're surrounded by chaos, your brain is chaos," he said.
As with Cafe Ponte and the Refinery, in the past two years downtown St. Petersburg's BellaBrava has had some critical violations, once even requiring a follow-up visit. These infractions included bartenders cutting fruit with bare hands and evidence of roaches. But co-owner Mike Harding is similarly laudatory about the changes at the DBPR.
"The health department finally has the teeth to make a difference in the culture of individual restaurants. They gave themselves tools to better identify things that are more than critical," Harding says of the changes. "They now have a tool to levy real ramifications that make the public more aware of (a restaurant's) real practices. For things that jeopardize public safety, they should have a heavier hand that they can apply."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.