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False claims uncovered at LA farmers' markets

Vegetables for sale at a farmers' market.

Vegetables for sale at a farmers' market. Credit: AFP / Getty Images

Since most of you aren't likely to see the news reports of NBC News Los Angeles, I'm going to have to assume the bearer-of-bad-news role today. It seems a gardening-savvy reporter there was a little taken aback after seeing "locally grown" produce that was too pretty, too perfect or maybe even out of season in Southern California. So an undercover investigation was launched, and the results are enough to make you lose your lunch.

Some farmers claiming to be selling locally grown, pesticide-free produce at the region's 300-plus farmers' markets actually were selling conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, according to the findings. The reporters checked out the farmers' farms, and found some that were vacant, weed-riddled parcels of land. So where did the produce come from? In many cases, from warehouse clubs. So not only was the public deceived about what they were getting, but they were being charged a premium for produce that was bought in bulk at a steep discount. That's unconscionable, especially since a lot of people I know, myself included, are willing to shell out a bit more for better quality. Apparently, I could get the same product for way less just by taking my Costco card out of my wallet.

In one example, the news team bought 26 types of produce from Frutos Farms, which has stands at seven markets in Los Angeles and Orange counties. To be clear, the farm's owner was asked specifically whether everything sold there was grown in his field. His response? "Correct ... everything," according to NBCLA. During a visit to the farm, no avocados, celery or garlic were to be found. These were items the farm was selling at the markets. When asked about the avocados, the owner fessed up: "Avocados? No, not here on the lot. … That I'll be honest. That stuff came from somewhere else."

To find out where that might be, undercover cameras followed him into a wholesale produce warehouse on a farmers' market day and caught him loading his truck with boxes of produce from commercial farms in Mexico and elsewhere. "He bought many of the types of items we saw him selling at the farmers markets," the report said. When confronted, he fessed up about this, too.

Other farmers were investigated, with similar results, including one who verbally confirmed her strawberries were pesticide free. Five samples purchased from the markets were sent to a state-certified lab and guess what? Three of the five did contain pesticides, including the strawberries represented as organic.

This isn't to say all, or even most, farmers selling at markets are unscrupulous. In fact, I haven't seen even a glimmer of evidence of such betrayal at any of the Long Island farmers' markets I've visited over the years. Though I can't vouch for whether "organic" produce really is free of pesticides, I do feel confident about the locally grown aspect of items I've bought because of all the ugly vegetables I've loaded into my bag. Ugly and commercial farms are usually mutually exclusive. But it does give one pause, doesn't it?

So what's the takeaway lesson? Ask a lot of questions about the farm, its pest-control methods and specifically when the produce being sold was harvested. Then put on your best Dr. Cal Lightman and watch the vendor's reactions. If you need a primer, watch "Lie to Me" Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox.


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