DOWNTOWN — Ever wonder if something’s rotten at your farmers market?
Maybe those pricey “locally grown” mangos are actually commercial imports from South America.
Southern California officials have cracked down this past year on vendors who violate state law by selling fruits and vegetables they don’t produce. Violators can be fined up to $1,000 for each offense and banned from the markets for up to 18 months.
This year, 20 vendors were fined in Los Angeles County. San Diego County sanctioned five, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“The whole point of farmers markets is that you know who you’re buying from, and what their practices are,” said Robin Holding, a regular shopper at the Santa Monica market who bought a suspicious mango. “It was not inexpensive, and of awful quality. I was really turned off.”
Inspectors are trained to recognize tipoffs such as fruit with a commercial appearance — waxed or of uniform size — or that is out of season in a particular growing area. They also look out for sales volume that exceeds a grower’s capacity, although some farmers have tried to fool inspectors by planting dummy crops.
“They never harvest, they’re just for us to see,” said Korinne Bell, who supervises farmers markets for the Ventura County agricultural commissioner.
Fighting market fraud is a costly proposition, though. Los Angeles County, which has 153 farmers markets, spent $243,000 during the fiscal year that ended June 30. That’s three times what the county made on market fees.
But violators also are hit in the pocketbook.
Victor Gonzalez of Atkins Nursery in Fallbrook was among the farmers sanctioned in San Diego County. He acknowledged that on three occasions, his vendors sold produce his farm didn’t produce. He was banned from farmers markets for six months and the penalty was upheld Tuesday by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Gonzalez told the Times on Thursday that some of his workers mistakenly placed fruit from another farm on his vending tables.
“I fired those people, and I’ll pay the fine, but please let me work, or I’m dead,” he said.
Stopping cheaters is crucial, said Laura Avery, supervisor of the Santa Monica market. “For farmers markets to continue to prosper, it is crucial that consumers have confidence that vendors really grow what they sell.”