State agencies responsible for protecting Florida’s consumers and food supply have taken notice of the fraud served at too many restaurants and farmers markets. Claims about locally sourced ingredients are too often fiction, and that deceives diners who wind up paying too much for frozen or imported food. The state is acting responsibly by stepping up oversight and enforcement to ensure Floridians are eating what they expected, and officials should keep it up.
In her investigative series “Farm to Fable,” Tampa Bay Times restaurant critic Laura Reiley noted numerous claims from area restaurants about the origins of their ingredients and then set out to verify them. What she uncovered was blatant misrepresentation: “Florida” seafood that’s actually frozen and imported from Asia; restaurant menu boards listing specific farms they don’t buy from; “local” dishes with every ingredient coming frozen in a box. Some farmers markets, whose popularity has boomed in the last few years, also have dirty secrets. In some cases, few vendors in the stalls are actually farmers. Some of what’s sold are grocery chain rejects or wholesalers’ products with the labels peeled off. Not heirloom. Not heritage. Not small batch.
There are a number of reasons this false advertising persists. For one, it preys on consumers’ growing desire to eat food that’s fresh, healthy, sustainably farmed and from small businesses. Slap a “farm-to-table” label on something and all those virtues are implied. But consumers also need more knowledge about how and where food grows. And until now, the state has devoted too little attention to ensuring food is truthfully described.
In the latest installment of her series, Reiley reported progress on that front. Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office is investigating restaurants across the state and talking to farmers to assess the scope of food misrepresentation. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation has increased investigations into restaurant claims, issuing 12 violations over false “farm-to-table” claims in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in the last eight months. (In the prior two years, no such violations were issued.) The same department has issued a 37-page training guide for inspectors that defines common terms, explains seasonal availability and advises them what to look for on their visits. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has developed a flier to help train inspectors and educate restaurant owners on seasonality.
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These efforts are fundamental consumer protections. Diners can unknowingly consume food they’re allergic to if it’s misrepresented on a menu or, more likely, pay a premium for a product that is supposedly local and fresh but is actually neither. Beyond that, by beefing up oversight the state is protecting its own brand. “Fresh from Florida” is the state-run food marketing program with a $13.6 million annual budget. Restaurants can use the logo on their menus to identify ingredients grown or produced here. But the program has essentially run on the honor system, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is wise to be tightening up requirements for using the marketing line and using penalties for misuse.
What else should be done? Add restaurant inspectors. Inspectors making unannounced visits to look for food safety and sanitation violations and menu misrepresentations are the best way to keep restaurant owners honest. But Florida needs more of them. Just 191 inspectors are responsible for policing the state’s 40,000 restaurants. That’s a woefully inadequate force, and the Legislature should provide more money to hire more inspectors.
The popular farm-to-table movement is all about food that’s fresh and local, descriptions that too many food purveyors are using with little to back it up. Bondi and Putnam should continue to protect consumers by cracking down on dishonest claims that have been largely ignored for too long. More restaurants and farmers markets will improve their practices and accurately promote their offerings if it’s harder to get away with misrepresentations and they know consumers are paying attention.