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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Know your farmer, know your food – except when it is not the food they grew

The USDA program, “Know your farmer, know your food,” sounds great, but it requires a certain level of trust of the farmer when you are not buying it directly from the farmer on the farm. Even when you are “looking the farmer in the eye,” he or she might well be crossing the fingers of one hand behind their back, while taking your cash with the other.

L.A. NBC reporters Joel Grover and Matt Goldberg did a stunning piece – “False Claims, Lies Caught on Tape at Farmers Markets” – where they uncovered the scam of some farmers claiming to grow the crops they were selling at “local” Farmer’s Markets, when in fact they were buying the products from wholesalers. The video is disturbing and really brings into question the claims of the “local food movement,” and the belief that “looking my farmer in the eye,” tells you anything about the food’s quality or safety.

I think this one comment to the story really summed it up – “This really sucks. I love farmers markets.”

It makes me think about that market down the street from my new office – “The Pike’s Place Market.”


  • Bill Anderson

    The largest producer-only farmer’s market in the U.S. is in Madison, WI. It has a 5 year waiting list (minimum) for new farmers to get in. It is strictly controlled to be “producer-only.” There are certain exceptions — for example bakeries don’t have to grow their own grains, and cheese makers don’t have to milk their own animals (though some do), but they must still be directly and personally involved in the production of the food they are selling at the market in order to be a vendor.
    Not all outdoor markets are “producer only”, which is fine for them, but they just need to be honest with the public about that fact.

  • Doc Mudd

    This has been a widespread ‘dirty little secret’ for quite a while – here’s the jaw-dropping moment of discovery in London three years ago:
    (You aspiring farmers market tycoons may want to study the helpful ‘bluffers guide’contained in this link)
    The more we get to really “know our farmer”, the less lofty the heroic hobby farmer’s pedestal becomes.
    Should’a kept things in perspective, especially the whole “blind trust = purity, safety, integrity, mom & apple pie” thing. We knew better, dammit, we knew better than to trust blindly and let ourselves be conned like this, but…but, it’s sooooo trendy and smart!!
    Trust, but verify – now that’s the smart way to “know your farmer, know your food”

  • Nate

    If you buy certified organic, you can ask the producer to show you his or her certificate. This certificate will let you know what products they actually grow. Another way that organic certification provides us with information and security not found with un-certified foods.

  • Steve Gilman

    Fraud is where you find it any time there’s money to be made, I’m afraid. I agree with Bill — the key is to support PRODUCER MARKETS.
    For the smaller Farmers Markets I’ve been a part of in Upstate NY every vendor knows everyone else and any buy-sell miscreants are soon outed — and banished. This alone serves to keep everyone in line. Plus the fact that most small scale farmers are fully busy 24/7 growing, packing, hauling and marketing to have any time for much else.
    Bigger markets are harder to verify but for one example I’m familiar with, the huge Greenmarkets in NYC put a lot of resources into on-farm verification that all products are producer grown and/or made. Hopefully this scandal will spur greater verification efforts at all Farmers Markets across the country.
    It would be great if the LA-NBC reporters did a similar investigation on the sources of the daily food found in supermarkets — the industrialized food supply is globally sourced and largely unverified. Fraud is where you find it…

  • You say that a few cheaters selling food they didn’t produce “brings into question the claims of the local food movement.” hmm. I would think that, as an attorney you’d have chosen your words more carefully. These cheaters don’t raise any questions about the claims that locally raised and direct marketed foods are healthier, fresher, more sustainably grown, etc. Those claims are based on the assumption that local food is local.These cheaters do raise questions about the management of the markets they were vending at.
    Here in Seattle, we have a few different market management groups, some of whom are significantly stricter than others in enforcing their producer only policy. As for the Pike Place Market, they do manage a farmers market a few days a week, but the high stalls inside the market are no more owned and run by farmers than Safeway or QFC. As someone who is so into food, I’m sure you knew that the mangos and avocados you get at Sucio’s aren’t local.

  • Jason, good point. I did not mean to paint the entire farmer’s market industry with the same brush – I shop there too. I was more disappointed than anything.

  • Doc Mudd

    Jason sez: ” These cheaters don’t raise any questions about the claims that locally raised and direct marketed foods are healthier, fresher, more sustainably grown, etc.”
    No? Then why didn’t anyone notice the profound difference in flavor, healthiness, freshness, sustainability, etc. from the first moment they bit into these imposter foods? Cripes, that stuff is all we ever hear about from earnest folks who fawn over ‘local’, ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’…
    Even high and mighty food snobs, those with effete palates that are finely tuned to these sorts of things, they didn’t notice, either! There should have been lines of dissatisfied customers demanding refunds – if they could detect the difference – if any significant difference existed, which it doesn’t.
    Lesson: food is food is food. Claims of significant differences in ‘healthiness’ or ‘sustainabullness’ are an elaborate marketing hoax. And we’re all being fleeced, but admit it; we do so love a good flim-flam! Who needs a carnival once a year when can stroll the midway of the farmers market each week?

  • Bix

    “We found dozens of venders making false claims.”
    I didn’t realize it was so extensive.

    I thought the USDA had mandatory Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL). So, fresh produce from, to use their example, Mexico would have had a label on it designating its country of origin. That was removed? Why do grocery stores have to comply with COOL but not farmers markets? Is this similar to the exemptions made under the Tester Amendment?

  • Bill Anderson

    Please ignore corporate shill Doc Mudd.
    While it is true that some local producers are better than others, there is no question that food grown in biologically active soil that is minerally balanced, in bio-diverse ecosystems, using organic techniques has a superior nutritional content than food produced in depleted chemically drench dead soil as so much of our GMO corn and soy is produced today.
    For more about the subject of biological systems of agriculture, see this book — http://www.amazon.com/Biological-Farmer-Complete-Sustainable-Profitable/dp/0911311629

  • Bix – I need to do some research on COOL and Farmer’s Markets. On Tester, there is nothing in the bill that would have allowed this type of fraud.
    Bill and Doc – PLEASE tone down the personal attacks against each other.

  • Laura G Mills

    The FDA and USDA do not regulate local farmers’ markets. Either state or local (county) environmental health departments do…The FDA and USDA current food safety guidelines and future food safety regulations don’t apply currently to the fresh produce sold at farmers’ markets. I always ask the grower or their employee in the booth to explain their food safety Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program to me before buying their produce. My question is usually met with a blank stare. On a rare occassion (once in 12 visits to farmers’ markets in Haleiwa, HI and San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and King City, CA) have I been satisfied the grower actually had a food safety GAP program. We have alot of work to do to educate consumers on the safety of the fresh produce they’re buying, including what to look for and what to ask of their “farmer.” I encourage you, Bill, to work with our industry to help make this happen.

  • Sure, what do you have in mind?

  • Doc Mudd, evil corp shill

    There is no clear ‘superiority of nutritional content’ for organic vs. conventional food, regardless of how far away the misrepresented food may have been smuggled:
    ‘Certified organic’ is a marketing classification developed by USDA, and that is its only true significance. Looks like they’ve created an unregulated honor-system market that is prone to chicanery. A market where caveat emptor is the rule of law.
    But, please ignore the unwelcome exposure of market dynamics. Maybe heaping on more propaganda will obfuscate things and keep paying customers in a ‘trusting’ frame of mind?

  • Thanks for the reply Bill. I agree, it’s really disappointing that there are unsavory elements trying to profit off the local food movement, besmirching the good name of what, I believe, is a really important antidote to the generally unhealthy food that’s marketed to us. My sense is that in the City of Seattle, there is very little of this sort of cheating going on. Other markets in the region don’t have “producer only” policies, and so it isn’t cheating to have a reseller set up a booth at a market. There simply aren’t enough small to medium sized farms out there to vend at every small town’s market.
    But when a town creates a market, they need vendors to fill the space. Too often, these vendors are resellers. I believe that eating fresh fruits and vegetables – local or otherwise – is better than not. At the same time, it’s frustrating because non-farmers selling at a farmers market – whether they are breaking a producers only rule or not – can damage the image of the local food movement when these resellers don’t disclose the fact that they aren’t actually farmers.
    You should visit us at the Broadway Sunday farmers market on Capitol Hill in Seattle. It’s a wonderful, producers only market.

  • Bix

    Laura, thanks for that comment.

  • Tim Lukens

    Bummer, I really like farmers markets too. But… haven’t you ever wondered how the organic business went from being a small localized industry to a national thing in such a short time?
    Doc Mudd, ECS. (my compliments on your new title) I agree with you about certified organic and the USDA. I’ve watched the USDA acceptable additive list go from quite short to quite lengthy in just a few short years. Just another example of the power of corporate lobbyists, helping USDA meet demand from the people. The world must be fed and we don’t all live in quaint villages with farmland surrounding us anymore. We have urban lifestyles with amazing prosperity and mobility to match. So when we decide to condemn one side or the other, be it the local farmer, that really is local, or the corporate farmer feeding the masses, maybe we shouldn’t complain too loudly with our mouths full.