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When fraud hits the farmers market

(This article originally appeared HERE in Voice of San Diego).

Word traveled fast through the Little Italy Mercato farmers market: Follow regulations — or else.

Undercover agents working for the county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures found grower Stelios Proios of Proios Family Farm in Murrieta in violation of several regulations during a February 2012 inspection at the North Park Farmers Market.

The agriculture department worked in partnership with the city attorney’s office on the case, and Proios was banned from selling at any certified farmers market in the county for three years, and fined $1,000.

According to a notice sent from Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Lange Tuner’s office last month, Proios pleaded guilty to a charge of false/misleading advertising over how and where the produce he was selling was actually grown.

It’s a punishment not often seen here.

Proios, whose family has been selling at a variety of San Diego farmers markets for more than a decade, insists that despite the guilty plea, he’s done nothing wrong.

“I’m a farmer. I don’t make a lot of money. It costs me more to fight a bullshit case than to plead guilty to one of the charges,” he said in a telephone interview.

Proios says that the county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures inspector selected produce boxes from the back of his stall and confiscated them for testing.

“It wasn’t even my stuff to test. It’s not pesticide-free. It was not on display for sale. I supply to different restaurants and food trucks. They’re all aware that if I can’t get an item from my own farm, I get it from somewhere else,” he said.

But Nancy Stalnaker, supervising inspector for the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, disagrees. She said the undercover inspector asked whether the produce in question was pesticide-free, and that the department has evidence that proves it. When Proios confirmed that the produce was pesticide-free, the inspector took samples, tested them and found them to be positive for pesticides. She also said inspectors were sent to Proios’ farm, department protocol for certified farmers market growers, to ensure that he was actually growing the crops he was seen selling at the market. Again, agents found discrepancies.

“He wasn’t even growing the broccoli or Brussels sprouts he was selling. He couldn’t have grown them at his farm, which means he had to have brought them from someplace else,” said Stalnaker.

San Diego Weekly Markets Director Catt White, who manages the Little Italy market, along with several other markets, said suspensions are extremely rare. She also said the market had already stopped working with Proios over attendance issues before the ban was enacted by the city attorney’s office.

White said that despite the disappointment of discovering a grower violated regulations, the county is doing a good job regularly inspecting the markets and the farmers who supply them.

“Unlike other counties, San Diego is known for being conscientious about ag enforcement. We get very regular inspections of our markets,” White said.

Though rare, growers can incur violations in a number of ways. Sometimes farmers are charged with selling organic produce that, by law, isn’t certified and can’t carry the organic label. Sometimes produce listed as “pesticide free” will, in fact, test positive for pesticides. And sometimes, shady vendors will resell produce they’ve purchased elsewhere, displaying fruits and vegetables as their own. This kind of fraud matters because consumers who choose to shop at a local farmers market are often paying a premium for that produce, and vendors who comply with regulations sometimes shoulder the fallout.

“In general, customers are more wary after something like this,” says Audrey Brady, sales manager for Smit Orchards, which sells organic apples, grapes, cherries and almonds at many area farmers markets. “We are regularly inspected, and are paying to be certified organic, so it’s good to know that county inspectors are keeping watch.”

White said there are a number of things consumers can do to protect themselves: “Accept the fact that you can’t buy corn in February. Understand what’s in season so you can be suspicious if you see bright, shiny red peppers in February. And get to know your farmer. Ask them where their farm is. Ask them what they do to control pests. They’ll tell you. If they say ‘nothing’ and they have really beautiful produce, there’s something amiss there.”

Also, know your terms. “Pesticide-free” and “no spray” have no legal or regulated definition. "Certified organic," on the other hand, means farmers must comply with the USDA national organic program’s production and handling standards.

“For certified organic, growers need to be registered and they need to have certification that says it. Ask to see it,” said Stalnaker.

Other terms like "cage free," "pastured" or "humane" also can be tricky. A good guide for deciphering what you can trust is "Food Labeling for Dummies," published by Animal Welfare Approved, a third-party certifier.

For Proios, the probation and monetary fine were a bitter punishment, and he said he won’t be back at the markets, even after the probation period has ended.

“The whole thing was bad. I have a bad taste for the San Diego markets and the ag inspector,” he said.

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email clare@leschin-hoar.com.