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Seller fined for passing off produce as ‘pesticide-free’

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Just because a farmer claims to sell “pesticide-free” or “no-spray” produce at a farmer’s market doesn’t mean the claims are truthful, according to the Department of Agriculture. In March, a seller was busted following an undercover operation at the North Park Farmers’ Market. The defendant, Stelios Proios, pleaded guilty to a violation of Business and Professions Code.

Nancy Stalnaker is the Supervising Agricultural Standards Inspector for the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures. “We came to this farmer’s booth,” said Stalnaker. “We asked if it was organic and he said that he didn’t spray any pesticides. We took a sample of that produce and sent it to a lab and it came back with pesticides on it.”

Proios was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and will be banned from selling at certified farmers’ markets for three years. At certified farmers’ markets the farmers must grow the produce they’re selling and they must grow it in California. Stalnaker said Proios also violated that rule. “When we checked his farm,” said Stalnaker. “He didn’t grow that produce.”

The case might leave shoppers wondering how to tell which farmers are genuine. Stalnaker said customers should consider several things before purchasing. First, a vendor claiming to sell “organic” is required to register with the state. Second, the vendor will have certification at the booth to prove it, and Stalnaker recommends customers ask to look at the certification. Claims outside of “organic” are not regulated, according to Stalnaker. “Claims of ‘no sprays,’ ‘no pesticides’ or ‘all-natural’ — they’re not verified by any third party. There are no regulations regulating those terms,” said Stalnaker. That doesn’t mean vendors making those claims are lying. “They could be. We don’t have the resources to verify all of those,” Stalnaker said.

Stalnaker said the Department of Agriculture does inspections twice a year at each certified farmers’ market, but taking samples isn’t as common. She said the department has taken approximately four samples in the past year.

Brian Beevers manages three farmers’ markets in the San Diego area. He believes this case represents a small minority of farmers. “I believe most people are doing it the right way,” said Beevers. He said he works closely with the farmers at his markets and trusts the people claiming to sell “pesticide free” really are. Regardless, he offered advice for customers. “I always tell people if they have any question, then don’t buy from a farm you don’t know,” said Beevers. “But once you get to know the farmers and you realize that they’re doing honest work, generally speaking you’ll trust their food as well.”

As a customer you’re encouraged to always ask the farmer questions and if they claim to sell organic, simply look for the certification. If you have any questions, concerns or complaints about a farmer’s market or seller you should contact the Department of Agriculture at 858-694-2778.