Farmers’ Market Fraud?

We assume the produce we buy at the farmers’ market is fresh and locally grown—pulled from the earth by the same people we purchase it from. But what if that quaint booth selling dirt-smeared radishes is buying its produce from a wholesaler? An investigative report by the London Times shows that this sort of bait-and-switch is taking place at unregulated farmers’ markets in the UK.

The markets are only supposed to stock ‘local produce’, but last week we discovered spinach from Portugal and Spain — produced by another supermarket supplier — being sold at a farmers’ market … even legitimate stallholders are ‘topping up’ their locally grown produce with vegetables bought from Britain’s wholesale markets.

It is hard for consumers to know they are being misled. “One undercover reporter was told that city folk would not know the difference, especially if the produce came with ‘a bit of dirt on.’” With farmers’ market produce selling for higher prices, it is an appealing trick. “Many in the wholesale trade view some of the market stalls as a means of selling wholesale vegetables at premium prices to gullible urbanites,” the Times reports.

Some farmers’ markets are certified, requiring all vendors to produce their own products. But others are not, relying instead on consumer trust and vendor honesty. It seems that this trust is sometimes misplaced.

Isle of Wight Tomatoes, one of the most established stallholders at London’s numerous farmers’ markets … claims to sell its own homegrown produce. Think again. Its tomatoes … are bought from a separate company, Wight Salads, the bulk of whose £60m turnover comes from supplying supermarket chains … many of the tomatoes are actually experimental genetic crossbreeds.

Another reason to get to know your farmers’ market vendors (why pay extra for fake dirt?). Those looking to make a quick buck on clueless yuppies should check out the humorous “Farm Bluffer’s Guide” included at the end of the Times’s article, which lists tips including, “Ditch your normal weekend clothes and get wellies, a smock and a cap or scarf on your head. If someone starts asking too many questions, chew some straw.”