My short bio: I'm Laura Reiley, the food critic for the Tampa Bay Times newspaper. I spent two months working on an investigative series on "farm to table" claims at area restaurants and found that some are misleading, and some are simply false. After interviewing chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, state officials and food industry experts and having foods genetically tested, it became clear that what was advertised as “local” and “farm-to-fork” wasn’t -- from mislabeled food and farms to lies of the food itself (one menu said grouper when the fish we had genetically tested was actually tilapia).

You can read the full report at

My Proof: My writer page is, my Twitter is, and here's a tweet for proof --

Comments: 314 • Responses: 16  • Date: 

tobiaslee416 karma

Absolutely LOVED your piece. Didn't expect some of my favorite investigative journalism this year to come out of the world of food criticism to be honest, but it was so so great.

Do you have a sense at all for how significant the problem is beyond Tampa? I noticed you spoke to some farms outside the area like Border Springs, and I'm wondering if they gave you a sense how much restaurants in other parts of the country were doing at being honest about their sourcing.

LauraReiley230 karma

Tobiaslee, I have heard from hundreds of farmers around the country that this is a massive problem for them. I spoke with a produce farmer named Bobby Brothers today in NC and he said he'd just made the decision to stop selling to restaurants because it was such a hassle. He used to sell to 40. So I do think this is going on nationally.

tobiaslee57 karma

Thanks for the reply. As a follow up, if you don't mind, how did you get into food criticism? I work in news now, but I'd be really interested in making the jump to reviews I think.

LauraReiley162 karma

I was an English major with the hair-brained notion of being a poet, but I cooked in college for $$. So after undergrad I decided to go to culinary school to give me technical knowledge. And my first job out of school was at a food mag in CA. I've been writing about food ever since. So it sounds like I had a linear, reasonable life plan. (not)

wafflesareforever226 karma

Laura, your work on this makes me wonder why we don't see more quality investigative journalism like yours. 99% of what I read in the newspaper and see on TV is low-effort fluff. There's obviously a demand - just look at the response to your series. Would you agree that the media in general should focus more than it does now on investigative journalism, and if so, why do you think it isn't happening?

LauraReiley315 karma

It's expensive. The paper had to take a chance on me and this project. I basically did nothing else for two months so other folks had to cover my beat. There aren't that many papers that can afford to do that or prioritize doing it. And in terms of food investigations, most of us food writers aren't investigative journalists. I felt like I was winging it some of the time.

wafflesareforever73 karma

Thanks. Do you think the Times will recoup its investment on this project?

LauraReiley222 karma

I don't know. But right now when I get on the elevator people are smiling at me, even the higher-ups. So at least so far no one seems like they're reconsidering the decision! Fingers crossed.

Pg21_SubsecD_Pgrph1294 karma

Hi, Laura. Thanks for doing this. Your article was so well-done and researched. By the end all I could think was 'Wow'.

  • How did you get the restaurants to respond so candidly to your investigation? Did you simply phone them up and ask or did you have other means to get truthful answers?

  • Have any of the restaurants responded to the article?

  • Can you recommend Tampa/regional Florida farms that are truly local and don't import from out of state?

  • How has this changed your view of the Tampa food scene and where it's headed?

  • What is your favorite restaurant in town and why?

LauraReiley116 karma

I think because I've been a critic in this community for a while, it was pretty easy to call up a chef and say "I'm doing a sourcing story and I wanted to talk to you about where you're getting your food from." It was somewhat surprising how often the answers were error-filled. A totally reasonable answer might have been "I'm not sure, I'll have to get back to you on that." But maybe folks don't feel comfortable saying that to someone in the media.

LauraReiley123 karma

As per a response, just about all the restaurants have changed their menus and chalkboards as a result. And then most of them followed up with me with clarifications. I thought it was really cool that Boca hired a "forager" to work with farmers but also to communicate sourcing to diners. I love the idea that this kind of transparency could be the result.

You_dont_even_know34 karma

Hello Laura, do you or the Times have plans to do a follow-up article to see if those changes last?

LauraReiley128 karma

Sure. I think this will be a regular part of my job now in a way. If restaurants make specific claims, I now think part of my job is to spot check and make sure those claims are accurate. It adds complexity to the job, and probably won't endear me to some restaurants, but it seems important. If we're paying for a Rolex and it's a fake--sure, it still tells time and LOOKS LIKE a Rolex. But we still feel duped.

LauraReiley96 karma

Oh, and you asked about whether this has changed my view: I was disappointed that so many restaurants that I have admired and written about favorably seem to be fudging on this stuff. As in any industry, there are folks who are honorable and those who aren't. I guess I need to work a little harder to figure out who is who.

SamuraiJan54 karma

After doing this story, what are the red flags when reading menus? (like what's a word/food that 90% of the time is a lie or gray area)

Pg21_SubsecD_Pgrph12109 karma

I believe one thing she mentions in her article was that if a restaurant claims to be locally sourced but the menu never changes, that's a red flag since seasonality should affect the availability of certain ingredients.

LauraReiley88 karma

pg21, you're totally right. This means you have to know what grows in your area during which season. Which requires some education on diners' parts. But heck, if we're asking our restaurateurs to do so much in terms of sourcing, it seems like the least we can do.

LauraReiley101 karma

I think it's totally reasonable to sit down at at a table, look at the chalkboard, and google any farm names mentioned. Do they exist? Are they local? What do their Facebook pages say they are growing RIGHT NOW and does that gel with what the restaurant is claiming?

thraceps28 karma

Thank you for researching this! I apologize if this is already in your report, I will read it later, but is there any sort of official regulation on this? If not, is there anything in the works? I'm assuming this could be another wording issue, like putting "natural" on any packaging.

LauraReiley47 karma

There is a legal definition for "certified organic," but local, sustainable, responsibly raised and other terms are totally fair game and open to interpretation. So how does that get regulated?

limbodog22 karma

Hello Ms. Reiley,

I'm a food fan. I love good restaurants and even gooder food. As such, I find myself befriending chefs and other food industry people, and I've learned it is basically impossible to completely locally source an entire resto's menu.

I assume there is a line you draw wherein you can say "Meh, close enough" on whether or not to cry fowl (pun intended) on a claim of local sourcing. May I ask where you would draw it?

LauraReiley60 karma

I think at line gets drawn wherever the restaurant chooses. Some restaurants make no claims at all, some say "we source local whenever possible" and hopefully servers can point you to what that means. When a restaurant makes claims like "we source within 250 miles" it raises red flags. Here in FL, that is super hard to do.

justscottaustin11 karma

Who do you feel is the ultimate root of this problem? Shady suppliers? Shady farms? Shady fisherman? Shady restauranteurs? Shady chefs?

LauraReiley114 karma

I think it's consumer ignorance and consumers not being willing to pay what real, local, carefully raised food costs. That sounds harsh, but I think it's our fault. Restaurateurs are telling these tales because we desperately want them.

wbg345 karma

Ms. Reiley, Thank you for all of the work that you put into this article. As a fan of the "local" food movement, this article was really eye opening.

I also read your reviews on a regular basis and usually look them over whenever I'm going to be dining in an area that I'm not familiar with.

Has writing this article made doing your day job any more difficult?

Also, There is and has been a ton of expansion around State rte 56 and I-75. Have you heard of any new places coming to the Wesley Chapel/Lutz area that aren't chain places?

LauraReiley10 karma

I'm not sure yet, wbg34. I'm writing my first review in 2 months right now. It feels good to be back doing it, but I think I am more cynical and probably will be more suspicious than previously.

AlbinoMuntjac5 karma

Was there one restaurant that the results were more surprising than you thought they would be, as in did you start looking at their data & think it was going to go one way and end up completely different? Also, since Boca became Boca after Smoke, I have refused to set foot in there due to all the lame buzzwords they stenciled on the building. It seemed like a red flag from the get go to me.

LauraReiley24 karma

Several of the restaurants in the story are places I've really loved and written about very positively. And a couple of the chefs are people who I've had a lot of respect for and enjoyed talking to over the years. So it was a little disorienting. I think sometimes these kinds of misrepresentations are flat-out mistakes, but enough of them seemed like intentional deception that I was a little shocked.