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Farm to Fable: Bondi's office investigating restaurant claims, state stepping up inspections

A mix of seafood was on display at Florida's Fine Food at the 35th annual John's Pass Seafood and Music Festival in Madeira Beach. But not much of the seafood came from local waters. It's difficult to police the claims about the seafood at Florida festivals, officials say. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Dec. 18, 2016

The investigators started showing up in May and June.

At Turkey Hill Farm in Tallahassee, Louise Divine grows fruits and vegetables, ginger and turmeric, sugar cane and elephant garlic, lettuces in the winter. When the man arrived at the farm, they sat on the porch for an hour or so and talked. Which restaurants bought her produce? Which restaurants said they did, but really didn't?

"He said it wasn't about enforcement or policing," Divine said. "He said, 'Our boss wants to find out if this is a problem.' "

His boss is Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. And after a string of similar visits reported by other Florida farmers, Bondi confirmed what they suspected.

"We are currently looking into restaurants throughout the state of Florida," Bondi told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday.

The state's investigation began just after the Tampa Bay Times published its series "Farm to Fable," an examination of food misrepresentations. The stories, questioning trendy menu claims of "local," have been shared nationally. The reporting has inspired similar efforts in other cities.

Read the investigation here: At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants, you're being fed fiction

The attorney general's investigation accompanies other state-level changes to stem what many perceive as a rising tide of food fraud.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation has stepped up inspectors' investigations of restaurant claims, unveiling new training tools and an industry bulletin. And the Department of Agriculture has made efforts to more rigorously define terms, changed language on consumer websites and developed materials to help inspectors assess where food is coming from.

Still, farmers and experts around the state say, it all may not be enough. While departments trip over each other to claim oversight, some areas fall through the cracks.

"You have so many different requirements from the different agencies," said Bob Jones, who has worked for the Southeastern Fisheries Association since 1964. "Inspections are very subjective and we're caught in the middle of the quagmire. This is the biggest mess in the world."

• • •

Divine told Ed Lary, a financial investigator from the consumer protection division of Bondi's office, what she knew.

"They were asking if we had any suggestions or ideas on how to approach this beast of a task, (so I) tried to give some guidance on how complicated it is to keep track or prove that people are buying from farms."

Katie Harris, co-manager of Full Earth Farm in Quincy and co-director of the Red Hill Small Farm Alliance, got a similar call from Lary's colleague, Rebecca Woolever.

"We chatted for about 45 minutes," she said. "They are in the early stages of trying to develop standards for restaurants. . . . We told them we know lots of farmers and restaurant owners and chefs who buy local that we could easily bring to the conversation. That was the last I heard from them."

Bondi declined to say how many investigators were assigned to the task or when the investigation would be complete. She encouraged citizens to report false representations of food products.

Victoria Butler, director of the consumer protection division, suggested diners provide menus or links for restaurants they suspect of fraudulent claims.

For more than 40,000 Florida restaurants, the Division of Hotels and Restaurants in the Department of Business and Professional Regulation has 191 inspectors checking for food safety, sanitation and misrepresentations. By comparison, Georgia, with about half the population, has 300 inspectors. Florida has not hired more inspectors, nor changed the way it decides which restaurants to inspect, a system based on assessed risk. But there has been a noticeable increase in the words "farm-to-table" appearing in inspection reports.

In two years of inspections in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, there were no "farm-to-table" misrepresentation violations. In the last eight months, there have been 12.

• • •

Larry's Giant Subs has dozens of locations in Florida and neighboring states. Franchisees pay $20,000 and then 6 percent annually on gross sales. In exchange, they get help with site selection and design, go through training and have access to a specific food supply chain.

There's a national contract with Pepsi and Frito Lay; bread comes from Costanzo's Bakery in Buffalo, N.Y.; tuna is Bumble Bee albacore; mayo is Hellman's. Roast beef is "all natural, black Angus USDA choice with no injections." Chicken breast is "antibiotic free, hormone free and sustainably farmed."

Larry's Giant Subs claims to source all deli meat and vegetables from Raikes Farms. It says it right there on the menu and marketing materials. And Raikes Farms has its own website with a short video intercutting lunch meat roll-ups with footage of rolling pastures.

Except, Raikes isn't a farm at all.

A restaurant inspector issued warnings to Larry's Giant Subs in Jacksonville in July and again in September for offenses. An inspection report read:

Establishment claims they are farm to table on menu. Menu claims pastrami and grilled chicken breast comes from Raikes Farms. No invoices could be located during time of inspection proving items come from specified farm. Items have already been removed from original packaging so identity of provider cannot be confirmed.

On May 21, 2012, chain founders Larry and Mitch Raikes filed a U.S. federal trademark for Raikes Farms in the category of meats and processed food products. On Wednesday, Larry Raikes admitted to the Times that, although his family once had a farm, Raikes Farms is a co-packer, a company that manufactures and packages foods.

Infractions since April are still largely about fish substitutions (escolar substituted for white tuna; imitation crab for the real thing), but other kinds of provenance claims are beginning to be scrutinized:

The Birchwood in St. Petersburg was cited for substituting cow's milk mozzarella for advertised buffalo milk and another kind of egg for the advertised brand; nearby Caddy's on Central was cited for advertising grass-fed beef burgers and not being able to produce invoices. Café Largo in Largo was cited for claiming all wild fish but serving farm-raised mussels. And Jackson's Bistro in Tampa was dinged for claiming North Atlantic swordfish and not being able to identify provenance for the inspector.

Why does it matter? Because these more specific claims — "grass-fed," "wild-caught," "buffalo mozzarella" — command a premium price. The Birchwood and Jackson's Bistro were both identified for misrepresentations in the Times' "Farm to Fable" series.

• • •

When restaurant inspectors head out, they are now equipped with a 37-page state guide.

Distributed in June, said Stephen Lawson, communications director for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, it explains terms such as "farm-to-table" and "organic" and discusses seasonal availability and what to look for: Particular attention should be focused on food descriptions placed on menus, blackboards or specials flyers that include specific ingredients, specific suppliers, specific farms or specific brands.

An additional one-page industry bulletin on emerging issues and trends was also disseminated to inspectors, Lawson said.

"If there is an issue, the inspector gives the restaurant that document and works with them in a pro-business manner to resolve the issue," Lawson said.

Misrepresentations fall under the authority of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, but the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has developed a flier to help train inspectors on the seasonality of Florida's produce, according to Jenn Meale, communications director for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

She said the department is currently defining more specific terms related to Fresh From Florida, a state-run food marketing program with a budget this year of $13.6 million. They are also refining the requirements for use of the Fresh From Florida logo and the penalties for misuse.

And finally, she said, "Following (the Times') piece, we added language to our website to equip consumers with the questions they should ask at farmers markets in order to understand where the goods are grown."

And still, there are some parts of our food system where oversight seems negligible.

• • •

In October, thousands of hungry seafood fans perused the offerings at the annual John's Pass Seafood and Music Festival in Madeira Beach. Situated on Florida's waterfront and boasting "the largest seafood selection ever," it would be logical for the 35,000 attendees to assume the festival's food was hauled from local waters.

Many vendors don't even live in Florida, but rather travel around the country like carnival workers.

Mr. Paella had shrimp from Panama and mussels from Thailand. Sea Shore Seafood had shrimp and mussels from Chile and cod from Restaurant Depot, which gets fish from many countries. And the vendor at Miss Vi's Cook-Up said it used basa, otherwise known as pangasius or Asian catfish, in its Caribbean seafood dishes. None of these claimed to be selling Florida seafood.

Of the 27 vendors counted, only eight claimed to serve some kind of Florida seafood. Florida's Fine Food, the festival's largest vendor, claimed to have grouper and Florida shrimp. Behind the stall, there were stacks of frozen farmed pangasius boxes from Vietnam and frozen shrimp from India. Florida's Fine Food did not respond to messages.

Dusan Maksimovic of Mediterranean Corner Seafood & Grill has been a vendor at John's Pass for four years. As many vendors do, he spends six months at festivals in Florida and the rest in the Midwest. At John's Pass, he sold what he said was Florida shrimp. But when it came to grouper, his sign made no claims to Florida. His grouper is an imported product he buys from Restaurant Depot.

"Unless you're getting a good deal and can charge $10 a plate, domestic grouper doesn't bring in the money you need," he said. "One case is $70 to $80 for around 20 portions."

From September 2014 to May 2015, there were 42 seafood festivals in Florida, some drawing crowds of more than 100,000. In 2015, Lutz seafood festival enthusiast and real estate agent Jo Anne "Joni" Hartzler attended festivals including the Homosassa Arts, Crafts and Seafood Festival and the Ruskin Seafood Festival. She said her experience at both was similar.

"We walked around the front of the stands and looked at the menu signs: grouper, mullet and mahi mahi. We then walked around the back of the trailers dispensing the seafood and found only box after box after box, I mean a lot of boxes, labeled 'Product of China,' 'Product of Vietnam,' 'Product of Indonesia,' 'Product of Taiwan.' Piles of discarded empty boxes of Asian seafood."

Melanie Rimes, executive director of the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the Ruskin festival, had never heard that complaint. State inspectors come to the festival, she said, mostly looking for sanitation.

"A committee chooses the vendors and the big ones tend to be the same year to year," Rimes said. "What people don't understand is that the vendors have to be approved mobile units with water hook-up, so little local restaurants aren't equipped. We have Mullet Shack and Pita Kebob, which are local."

Homosassa Civic Club treasurer Bill Garvin said many vendors at the Homosassa festival are local and that he was unaware of complaints.

According to Meale, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services does not oversee the state's festivals. There are no vendor guidelines or mandates about how much Florida seafood is represented. And nobody checks vendors' menu veracity.

Matt Powers is the owner of Mad Beach Craft Brewing and one of the organizers of the John's Pass festival. His restaurant was selling Florida spear-caught hogfish at the festival. While he can ask vendors to serve something from Florida, he said, "We can't demand it. Local seafood is just more expensive."

It doesn't have to be this way. John Solomon has been the president of the Florida Seafood Festival in Apalachicola for a dozen years. Started in 1963, the festival now draws 32,000 visitors to a town of 2,500. There are 32 food booths.

What makes it different, though, is that organizers insist only local nonprofit groups sell seafood, and the seafood must be local. For-profit vendors fill in with non-seafood. But the Baptist church does the fried mullet, Carrabelle Church of God the raw oysters. The Franklin County School graduating class of 2019 was responsible for the fried oysters and fried shrimp.

"A dozen parents and three or four dozen kids work the booth, the students on the front end and the parents cooking," said Carl Whaley, a Franklin County School Board member who is also on the board for the festival.

They get oysters from Barber's Seafood in Eastpoint, and the shrimp come from Amison Seafood in Apalachicola, right down the street.

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

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