California Legislature Passes Bill to Crack Down on Farmers’ Market Fraud

| August 27, 2014 | 1 Comment
  • 1 Comment

Farmers’ markets have never been hotter in California, but what regulation there is happens mostly on the local level: which is to say, it’s spotty. The most established farmers’ markets, like the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, are very careful about provenance. But other smaller, younger markets?  Not so much. At least, this is what we know from media reports, including those on KQED’s California Report. We take on trust that people selling us organic produce really are selling us ORGANIC produce, and those who have looked into it report there’s a lot of fraud going on.

Ibrahim Abdel-Fatah of the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner's office inspects the stand of All Green Farm of Perris at the Motor Avenue farmers' market 2/17/13. He and his supervisor, Ed Williams, noticed that the Cara Cara oranges in the photo at left were not listed on the certified producer’s certificate; also some Pink Lady apples in the photo at right were waxed and others were not. All Green was was fined $600 by Los Angeles County for selling these produce items not grown by the farm. Photo: David Karp

Ibrahim Abdel-Fatah of the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner’s office inspects the stand of All Green Farm of Perris at the Motor Avenue farmers’ market 2/17/13. He and his supervisor, Ed Williams, noticed that the Cara Cara oranges in the photo at left were not listed on the certified producer’s certificate; also some Pink Lady apples in the photo at right were waxed and others were not. All Green was was fined $600 by Los Angeles County for selling these produce items not grown by the farm. Photo: David Karp

David Karp, Pomologist

David Karp, Pomologist

Enter AB 1871, authored by Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento). The bill authorizes a number of things, but “the bill’s most significant provision raises the daily stall fee the California Department of Food and Agriculture charges certified farmers markets for each vendor.” That’s David Karp, one of the state’s foremost pomologists (fruit experts), who has also followed farmers’ markets as a columnist for the last 15 years.

Presuming Governor Jerry Brown agrees and signs AB 1871, the fee will rise in January from a maximum 50 cents to $2. “That’ll raise about $1.4 million,” says Karp, who adds these fees apply to everybody selling in the farmers’ markets, including those selling ancillary products like popcorn or tacos. Where will the money go? To the state, which will run the enforcement program, hiring a couple of inspectors, but mainly reimbursing county agricultural commissioners. They are expected to provide the thin green line of defense, checking not just on market stalls but farms as well.

The bill also stiffens the fines that can be imposed, and even includes the possibility of jail time.

Why has it taken so long? Getting the stakeholders to agree was “like herding cats,” Karp says. He thinks public pressure from those aforementioned media reports was the main reason something finally happened. That said, officials in a couple of counties, Marin and Los Angeles, didn’t wait for legislation to crack down on fraudsters. In recent months, Karp says, Los Angeles has issued 61 tickets to vendors selling “produce not of own production,” or “PNOOP” as he likes to call it.

Ed Williams, who supervises inspection of certified farmers markets for the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner's office, shows Laura Avery, the Santa Monica markets supervisor, a mango sold at the market which has dead white scale, an insect not present in California, and therefore evidence that the fruit was imported; at the Santa Monica Saturday Downtown farmers market. Avery had contacted agricultural authorities because she suspected that a vendor in her certified section had not produced the mangoes he was selling. 11/16/13 Photo: David Karp.

Ed Williams, who supervises inspection of certified farmers markets for the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, shows Laura Avery, the Santa Monica markets supervisor, a mango sold at the market which has dead white scale, an insect not present in California, and therefore evidence that the fruit was imported; at the Santa Monica Saturday Downtown farmers’ market. Avery had contacted agricultural authorities because she suspected that a vendor in her certified section had not produced the mangoes he was selling. 11/16/13 Photo: David Karp.

In other parts of the state, enforcement has been more haphazard, Karp says. Given that there are about 800 farmers’ markets in California, “if a tenth, or a quarter, or a third of that is not what it’s purported to be, we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars in cheating.”

Karp says it’s critical for counties to hire someone who’s knowledgeable to conduct enforcement.

“You can know a lot about produce. You can know a lot about farmers’ markets. But it’s a special set of skills, sort of like forensic accounting, plus agricultural science, that really determines whether you’ll be an effective inspector.”

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About the Author ()

Rachael Myrow hosts the California Report for KQED. Over 17 years in public radio, she's worked for Marketplace and KPCC, filed for NPR and The World, and developed a sizable tea collection that's become the envy of the KQED newsroom. She specializes in politics, economics and history in California - but for emotional balance, she also covers food and its relationship to health and happiness.
  • Chris J

    Good that they are doing this. Trust can only go so far, given that there are unscrupulous growers and distributors out there who haven t yet elected to be part of our big, happy family of organic produce eating wunderkind who seem to trust in all and that organic produce is ‘better’.

    Oh, I think it’s better…maybe, but no one can prove it.