NAPLES — When Sal Sinzieri opened his latest restaurant in early December — Fish, in the Village on Venetian Bay — he had no qualms that state regulators were changing food safety standards.
"It's just common sense," said Sinzieri, who also owns MiraMare Ristorante in Venetian Bay. "I believe in a clean restaurant. You've got to be responsible today. You owe it to the consumer. That's how I look at it and my whole staff looks at it that way."
Effective Jan. 1, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation began using new terms for food safety and sanitation infractions. The old terms tossed out were "critical" and "noncritical." They were replaced with "high priority," "intermediate" and "basic" for a new three-tiered assessment system.
Florida officials say the change was needed to be more responsive to the restaurant industry and was part of the state's decision to adopt the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 2009 food code manual.
"The updates to the food code, primarily the new violation classifications, will make the inspection process more user-friendly for operators and consumers because the information about the violations will be clearer and easier to understand," said Sandi Poreda, a spokeswoman for the state regulatory agency. "The critical and noncritical violation categories were very broad, whereas now violations and the level of their severity is very clear."
But the state agency didn't come up with the new violation terms. Instead, they were developed by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association as an alternative to nonsensical terms offered by the FDA, said Geoff Luebkemann, vice president of the 10,000-member restaurant association in the state.
The FDA's terms for safety violations — "priority," "priority foundation" and "core" — don't offer any meaning to restaurant operators, Luebkemann said.
The FDA updates its food code manual every four years. States can either outright adopt it or use it as a model, he said.
"There's no rush to adopt the new code," Luebkemann said, adding there are few changes from one period to the next.
Under the new three-tiered system for infractions, a "high priority" violation occurs when something can contribute directly to a foodborne illness or injury.
An "intermediate" violation, if not addressed, could lead to risk factors that contribute to foodborne illnesses or injuries. A "basic" violation involves something that is considered a best practice to adopt.
Luebkemann said the restaurant association supports the state's adoption of the updated food codes.
Besides going to a three-tiered system for infractions, another update requires some restaurant staff to be educated on what to do if a customer has an allergic reaction, he said.
Whoever is in charge must have a basic understanding of food allergies and the potential that a customer goes into shock and how to react, he said.
"That activity is new in the 2009 code but it is not new to anyone who has more than two restaurants," he said. "It is best practices. It's unusual for something to emerge in the new code that didn't start as a best practice (in the industry)."
Sinzieri, who owns Fish and Miramare, is unfazed by the change to a three-tiered system for food safety violations or with having staff members trained to deal with allergies.
"Whatever code they use, it's fine with me," Sinzieri said.
Vin DePasquale, owner of the Dock and Riverwalk restaurants in downtown Naples, said restaurant inspectors are thorough and pretty exact with the rules.
"We're kind of up to speed on everything," DePasquale said. "We have to have so many people certified in the restaurants. We have a dozen or so in each restaurant who do this."
Regarding food allergies, DePasquale said his staff members are trained to call 911.
"Don't ever play with it," he said, adding that making the call was a policy adopted at his restaurants years ago. "With seafood allergies, we've always been sensitive to that."