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Fraud At Farmer’s Markets

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 2, 2011

We’ve written many pieces discussing the merits of locally grown produce, but we have written just a tiny bit about the problem of fraud in local farmer’s markets.

The NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, however, has been doing a series about the enormous amount of fraud that goes on in farmer’s markets.

In a piece called, False Claims, Lies Caught on Tape at Farmers Market, the reporters, Joel Grover and Matt Goldberg, explained their findings:

There are now more than 300 farmers markets in the LA area, with more opening every month. But an NBCLA undercover investigation has revealed that some farmers at these markets are making false claims and flat-out lies about the produce they’re selling.

These findings grew out of an investigation:

NBCLA’s investigation began this summer, when we bought produce at farmers markets across the LA area, and then made surprise visits to farms where we were told the produce was being grown.

We found farms full of weeds, or dry dirt, instead of rows of the vegetables that were being sold at the markets. In fact, farmers markets are closely regulated by state law. Farmers who sell at these markets are supposed to sell produce they’ve grown themselves, and they can’t make false claims about their produce.

Some of the vendors were legit:

We did find plenty of vendors doing just that, like Underwood Farms, which sells produce at 14 markets, all grown on a family farm in Moorpark.

But when NBCLA went to look at the farms referenced on the permits vendors have to sell at Farmer’s Markets, they found many that were abandoned or didn’t grow the cornucopia of items these vendors sold. NBCLA, for example, bought over 20 items from individual vendors all of whom, by state law, are restricted to selling only items they themselves grew.

But when NBCLA sent undercover reporters to follow the trucks headed to the Farmer’s Market, they wound up at big wholesale warehouses in downtown Los Angeles:

But our investigation also uncovered vendors who are selling stuff they didn’t grow, like Frutos Farms, which sells at seven different farmers markets in LA and Orange counties.

During our investigation, we bought 26 different types of produce from their stands at the Century City farmers market, at the Larchmont market and at the Buena Park market. Frutos Farm’s state permit to sell produce at farmers markets says their farm is in Cypress.

NBCLA asked owner Jesse Frutos, “Everything you sell at farmers markets is grown in your Cypress field?” Jesse responded, “Correct...everything.”

But when NBCLA made a surprise visit to the Cypress field listed on its permit, Frutos couldn’t show us most of the produce he was selling, such as celery, garlic, and avocados.

So NBCLA asked, “Do you grow avocados here?”

“Avocados? No, not here on the lot … That I’ll be honest. That stuff came from somewhere else,” Frutos said.

Somewhere else? NBCLA’s undercover cameras followed Jesse’s trucks on farmers market days, and saw him going to the big wholesale produce warehouses in downtown LA.

We saw him loading up his truck, with boxes of produce from big commercial farms as far away as Mexico. He bought many of the types of items we saw him selling at the farmers markets.

After documenting this, NBCLA asked Jesse, “You are selling some things at farmers markets that you didn’t grow, that you got at wholesale produce markets?”

Jesse admitted, “Yes.”

NBCLA also noted that all kinds of unsubstantiated and often false claims were being made about pesticides:

And during our investigation, NBCLA examined another big claim made at farmers markets—that their produce is “pesticide-free.”

NBCLA bought one container of strawberries, from five different vendors, at five farmers markets, including a vendor called “The Berry Best,” at the Torrance farmers market.

NBCLA’s undercover shopper questioned the Berry Best’s owner about the strawberries: “These are pesticide-free?”

Owner Mary Ellen Martinez responded, “Yes, they are.”

To see if that’s true, we took our five samples to a state-certified lab, and had them tested for pesticides. Results showed three out of five samples we tested sold berries that did contain pesticides, including the sample from the Berry Best.

NBCLA went back to Martinez.

“We found four different pesticides in your berries. Do you know how that happened?” we asked.

Responded Martinez, “Nope.”

She later said pesticides might have drifted into her field from neighboring farms. But according to our lab, that’s unlikely because the pesticide level on her berries appears too high to have drifted from another farm.

Martinez ended the interview with NBCLA, telling us to leave her stand, “You’re getting on my nerves right about now.”

The oddity of the article, though, is that the conclusion is completely belied by the entire report. Speaking to consumers, the reporters suggest the following as their conclusion:

So, how do you, the customer, know if a farmer is selling locally grown produce that really came from his farm?

Operators of farmers markets we spoke to suggest shoppers get to know vendors they buy from, and ask them a lot of questions. Ask for the exact location of the farm where the produce is grown. If they claim their produce is “pesticide-free,” ask them what methods they use to control pests on their crops. Ask exactly when the produce was picked.

If the farmer can’t give you specific answers, or seems unwilling to answer your questions, market operators say you should walk away.

Of course, all the fraudulent players interviewed gave direct answers and made specific claims to NBCLA. The idea that if you “get to know” a businessman committing fraud you will know whether he is fraudulent is ridiculous — go ask Bernie Madoff’s victims!

These are criminals defrauding the public, and this is a police matter. The fact that the operators of the farmer’s markets don’t act aggressively to prevent such a problem and that so little is heard about this from the pro-local community indicates the degree to which ideology has transcended reality.

You can watch the first of the NBCLA reports below:

View more news videos at: http://www.nbclosangeles.com/video.

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