Online grocer Peapod.com has dropped several Long Island farms from its local farm boxes program, which offers next-day delivery of locally-grown produce.
Peapod, owned by Netherlands-based grocery giant Royal Ahold NV, said it dropped the farms because they did not adhere to a voluntary standard for handling produce established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ahold, which also owns Stop & Shop, recently began requiring farms to adhere to the standards, Peapod representatives said Tuesday evening.
The Long Island farmers were given six to eight weeks to undergo voluntary audits for good agricultural practices, known as GAP, and good handling practices, known as GHP, said Nick Stufano, senior manager of merchandising for Peapod.
But some of the farmers said they were first told of the audit requirement when they were dropped.
“I feel like we started them out, and now they dropped us,” said Anthony Panarello, owner of Natural Earth Farms, a certified organic farm in Calverton. “They were buying a lot from us, which kept us profitable. Now, they are not buying from us, and we will be competing against Peapod and that is going to hurt us.”
Stufano said, “Our whole premise was to work with 100 percent Long Island farms. We would like them to be part of the program, but until they get GAP certified, we can’t use them.”
The certification entails methods of packaging, handling and storing fruits and vegetables that reduce the risk of microbial food hazards. Audits generally cost $600 to $1,000 a year, USDA spokesman Sam Jones-Ellard said.
The full cost to farmers can run from $750 to $3,000, said Sandra Menasha, vegetable and potatoes specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. She said farmers may need to hire a dedicated food safety manager and purchase new equipment.
Food retailers and wholesalers are increasingly demanding GAP certification, even though it is not required by law, Menasha said.
Peapod’s website for locally grown produce listed eight Long Island farms as partners on Tuesday morning. Later that day, after a Newsday inquiry, seven of the eight had been removed from the website. Only the East End Mushroom Co. in Cutchogue remained.
Stufano said late Wednesday that “Peapod did not remove the seven Long Island farms from the website as a result of [Newsday’s] inquiry.” The website is run by Fresh Nation, a Stamford, Connecticut-based cooperative that works with local farmers. The website is updated weekly, he said. Fresh Nation buys produce from the farmers, and Peapod buys from Fresh Nation.
Attempts to reach Fresh Nation for comment by phone and email on Tuesday and Wednesday were not successful.
Peapod’s “guideline is strict and as long as you follow the guideline everything is fine,” said John Quigley, co-owner of East End Mushroom, adding he started the GAP certification process 2 1/2 months ago after he was told of the requirement by Peapod.
The other farms removed from the site include Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, Lenny Bruno Farms in Manorville, HOG (Hamlet Organic Garden) Farm in Brookhaven, Quail Hill Farm in Southampton, MarGene Farms in Mattituck, and Thera Farms in Ronkonkoma.
The boxes will continue to be sourced from farms in upstate New York and New Jersey.
Dominick Bruno of Lenny Bruno Farms, a fourth-generation, family-owned vegetable farm, said he had been contacted by Fresh Nation to provide produce for Peapod, but never received an order. He was told Tuesday that his farm was dropped because it did not have GAP certification. The farm grows safe produce, he said.
“I just want to make sure if someone is advertising that they are selling Long Island produce that they actually are,” said Bruno, a board member of the Long Island Farm Bureau.