Farmers Market Fraud May Be a Local Concern

July 21, 2010

The temptation is too much to resist. As the number of US farmers markets has tripled in the past 15 years, to more than 5,200, and sales have far exceeded $1 billion, numerous food sellers who lie about who they are or what they are selling are worming their way into this niche.

Many people and organizations are concerned because such deception misleads consumers and can take money from legitimate local farmers who are very dependent on these retail outlets; the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that more than one-quarter of all vendors at farmers markets derive all their annual farm income there. You can determine if farmers market swindles are an issue for your audience with a moderate amount of digging.

One type of problem is illustrated through a recent attempt by Safeway stores in parts of Washington state to sell foods in on-site venues they advertised as farmers markets. The foods were typical mass-produced products, and the salespeople were Safeway employees, according to a July 1, 2010, report by Seattle-based radio station KUOW. After local farmers market organizers confronted the chain, noting that such a practice would violate state law, Safeway said it might consider renaming its venues something like "weekend outdoor markets."

Another issue is the common practice of a vendor simply buying his or her products from someone else, then reselling them under his or her name, with a markup. This boosts the price for consumers, can undercut the price of farmers growing at a smaller scale, and provides no assurance of the food's provenance. The Wall Street Journal covered examples in Wisconsin and Arkansas in an April 29, 2010, article.

Some vendors use a range of tricks to induce buyers to think their produce is organic when it isn't. They may mark their stall with a label that is similar to that used for certified organic foods, but is slightly different, or attests only to the fact that the seller grew the food, but not that it is organic. Such situations can occur in California, for instance, according to a July 9, 2010, Associated Press article carried by the Huffington Post.

California officials have proposed a program that could reduce various forms of fraud, by investigating complaints, conducting tests for pesticides in products claimed to be organic, doing spot inspections to verify organic claims, and generally educating officials so they are better equipped to deal with bogus claims. The program could begin in October, depending on feedback officials get during the ongoing public comment period.

There are numerous food safety and traceability issues related to production of processed foods, such as salsa, jams, or pickles, sold at farmers markets. States vary widely in their requirements for such foods. Situations in Maine, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming are discussed in a June 28, 2010, Associated Press article.

Along with looking into problems similar to the ones noted above, other ways to investigate fraud issues are:

  • Look for produce with stickers that show the item came from somewhere else. Such stickers are typically used in stores for logistics reasons, and the only required reason for their use is to list the country of origin for higher dollar volume sellers, says Food and Water Watch's Patty Lovera, 202-683-2465.
  • Check for foods such as cucumbers and apples that are waxed; no waxing is needed for fresh foods sold soon after picking.
  • Visit the fields and facilities of a vendor who claims to be a local farmer.
  • Ask your state, county, or city what it may be doing to oversee or regulate farmers markets.
  • Some farmers market operators say they certify their vendors; check on that certification process, or if the market's vendors aren't certified, ask why not? Also, ask what the market's criteria are for defining "local." That can vary widely, says LocalHarvest Director Erin Barnett, 507-645-7432.

A number of events and actions related to farmers markets are scheduled to occur soon.

National Farmers Market Week is set for Aug. 1-7, 2010. Updated statistics on farmers markets may be released at this time on the Web site below.

  • USDA, Farmers Markets and Local Food Marketing (offers general information, statistics, and a way to search for farmers markets, with a search result also providing a state government contact for farmers market issues).

In September 2010, the USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program will announce the winners of its competitive grants, used for promotion and facilitation. In FY 2009, there were 86 grants totaling $4.5 million. FY 2011 grants are expected to be about $10 million.

The next results of the National Farmers Market Survey, last conducted in 2005, are scheduled to be released in early 2011. This should contain information such as the latest tally of the number of farmers markets, total sales, seasonal patterns, use of food stamps and other government program monies for purchases, and much more.

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