Stay safe by purchasing produce that is local and legal
Nov./Dec. 2009 California Country magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Although a quick stop at a roadside stand may save time and money, it could also be harmful to one's health if those products were stolen from a farmer.
Roadside fruit vendor Francisco Hernandez sells produce at a Tulare County intersection. Officers from the Tulare County Sheriff's Department Ag Crimes Unit say Hernandez has the documents required by the county to sell produce from his vehicle, and that he is one of the few who does.
During the drive to and from work, you may see that same roadside vendor sitting under the pop-up shade selling everything from asparagus to watermelon. And although a quick stop at the roadside stand may save you time and money, it may also be harmful to your health if those products were stolen from a farmer.
To protect consumers from unsafe produce and farmers from theft, law enforcement officers in agricultural communities statewide are checking the legality of roadside produce vendors, making sure they have the required permits, licenses and bills of sale.
“In one particular case, we confirmed that thieves had stolen peaches, plums and nectarines and were selling them out of the roadside vendors in Mettler,” said Sgt. Walt Reed of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department Rural Crimes Investigation Unit. “We made that case because the stone fruit was only grown in one location in all of California and it was right there in Mettler, and that company had given no one permission to have their stone fruit.”
Reed said, after his detectives began to do routine checks of the county’s roadside vendors to ensure that they had the proper documentation, the vendors essentially disappeared.
“These vendors don’t pay taxes; they don’t have permission to be on the property that they are selling from; they take away business from legitimate business owners; and at times we have found them to be selling stolen produce,” Reed said.
Chris Lange of Tulare County, who grows several varieties of citrus fruit, said his farm is hit repeatedly by commodity thieves and believes what is taken typically ends up being sold by roadside vendors and also at flea markets.
“The buyers of (stolen fruit) are not the commercial packinghouses that are honorable and professional. There’s a secondary market out there that is the roadside vendors and the flea markets,” Lange said.
On one occasion, several thousand pounds of mandarins were stolen from his sister’s trees and found being sold by a roadside vendor in Lemon Cove. Another time, 10 tons of mandarins were stolen. In that case, Lange said he believes the thieves were very organized in order to commit such a high-volume theft with a forklift, bins and a truck.
In Tulare County, roadside vendors sell whatever is in season, which means strawberries in the spring, stone fruit and navel oranges as the season progresses, and sweet corn in the summer.
“We speculate that some of the product we are seeing could be related to theft,” said Sgt. Rob Schimpf of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department Ag Crimes Unit. “In the inspections that we do, everybody is obligated to have proof of ownership and a receipt. They have to prove the source of whatever commodity they are in possession of.”
Roadside vendors in Tulare County must have three permits: from California Weights and Measures; from California Department of Food and Agriculture Market Enforcement; and a county vendor’s permit. There are also background checks and fees associated with the process.
“There are many things the vendors have to do to sell the produce legally,” Schimpf said. “You see people with fruit cut up and in containers. We have a lot of that here and we can immediately confiscate that because it is a major food-safety issue.”
The Tulare County Ag Crimes Unit has been working collaboratively with other county and state agencies to share collected information.
“After sitting down with all of these people, we realized that everybody did have an interest in this,” said Lt. Scott Logue of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department. “Before we didn’t realize that maybe we were all trying to do the same job and we kind of all had the same concerns.”
A similar effort to investigate roadside produce vendors has taken shape in San Diego County.
“We long had suspicions that illegal roadside vendors were a source for selling stolen product, but they are also undercutting the legitimate price of the product for legitimate growers,” said San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Elisabeth Silva. “We’ve got a long tradition in this state for roadside stands—for farmers making their product available directly to the consumer at a roadside stand—and I don’t think the general public has any idea that they are contributing to a major theft problem” by patronizing illegal roadside vendors.
In the Valley Center area of San Diego County, Silva and the Sheriff’s Department have cracked down on roadside vendors who sell avocados, citrus fruit, tomatoes, cut flowers and decorative plants. Like their counterparts in other counties, they first educated vendors about licensing and vending permit requirements and then checked back to see if those rules were being followed.
“What has happened is so far everybody who has received a warning and some education has left. It’s been real cost effective,” Silva said.
Danielle Rau, California Farm Bureau Federation director of rural crime prevention, recommends that consumers do what they can to make sure they’re buying both locally and legally.
“Roadside vendors can literally be found at most any wide spot in the road. When you purchase food from one of these vendors, you could be purchasing products that haven’t met any food-safety or health standards and have an extremely high likelihood of being stolen,” Rau said. “Consumers can make the safe and healthy choice and ensure they aren’t the black market for stolen fruits and vegetables by supporting local growers at certified farm stands and farmers markets and by buying California Grown in the grocery store.”
Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.