Lawmakers Crack Down on Farmers Market Cheaters

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

California lawmakers have made it harder to buy a pig in a poke at farmers markets.

After years of stories about vendors selling falsely-advertised products at farmers markets around the state, legislators passed Assembly Bill 1871 in the last session, tightening up enforcement of rules, increasing fines and setting up a funding mechanism to pay for regular inspections.

The markets are supposed to be selling fresh, locally-grown agricultural products as an alternative to supermarkets that bring their food in from distant places under less than ideal conditions. But vendors are not always honest about where their food comes from.

NBC Los Angeles poked around at some of the 300 farmers markets in the L.A. area in 2010 and found a lot of deception. Although the state had laws prohibiting vendors from selling stuff they didn’t grow, there was virtually no oversight. After looking at what the vendors were selling, they traipsed out to the farms to see where the products came from, followed some vendors to see where they really bought their goods and tested food to see if it was pesticide-free, as advertised.

They were disappointed. Vendors were bringing stuff in from as far away as Mexico, selling misadvertised pesticide-laden food and blatantly lying about what they were doing. Farms that were supposedly growing produce were not.

Despite the bad publicity and increased attention from state officials, vendors continued their dishonest ways. The Los Angeles Times reported last December that 19 farmers market vendors in the L.A. County were fined in 2013, up from two the year before. But everyone knew that was a drop in the bucket.

All 19 were caught lying about where they got their produce. It often wasn’t hard to spot the scofflaws. Vendors were selling fruit that was out of season in the area, was obviously commercially cleaned or said to be from a farm not certified to grow the product.

The new law takes effect in January. Vendor fees will rise from 60 cents (established in 1999) to $2 daily and will include everyone selling products (crafts, too) at the market, not just farmers. That should raise around $1 million for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which will maintain a database of growers and markets and pay for inspections at the state and local level.       

The law will also restrict non-certified vendors from peddling “fresh whole fruits, nuts, vegetables and flowers” in nearby sections of the market set up for supposedly non-agricultural products.

Growers will also have to post explicit signs explaining where their products are from and flat out say, “We grow what we sell.” The new law, which essentially expands and recasts the penalties, exemptions and requirements of an older law, will be permanent. The older law had a 2018 sunset provision.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Cracks Down on Farmers Market Cheaters (by Dan Charles, NPR)

California Farmers' Markets Under Stricter Regulation (by Rick Paulas, KCET)

New California Law Aims to Rid Farmers Markets of Cheaters (by David Karp, Los Angeles Times)

Tighter Enforcement Snares Farmers Market Cheaters (by David Karp, Los Angeles Times)

False Claims, Lies Caught on Tape at Farmers Markets (by Joel Grover and Matt Goldberg, NBC Los Angeles)

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