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Fraud At Farmer’s Markets

We’ve written many pieces discussing the merits of locally grown produce, but we have written just a tiny bit about the problem of fraud in local farmer’s markets.

The NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, however, has been doing a series about the enormous amount of fraud that goes on in farmer’s markets.

In a piece called, False Claims, Lies Caught on Tape at Farmers Market, the reporters, Joel Grover and Matt Goldberg, explained their findings:

There are now more than 300 farmers markets in the LA area, with more opening every month. But an NBCLA undercover investigation has revealed that some farmers at these markets are making false claims and flat-out lies about the produce they’re selling.

These findings grew out of an investigation:

NBCLA’s investigation began this summer, when we bought produce at farmers markets across the LA area, and then made surprise visits to farms where we were told the produce was being grown.

We found farms full of weeds, or dry dirt, instead of rows of the vegetables that were being sold at the markets. In fact, farmers markets are closely regulated by state law. Farmers who sell at these markets are supposed to sell produce they’ve grown themselves, and they can’t make false claims about their produce.

Some of the vendors were legit:

We did find plenty of vendors doing just that, like Underwood Farms, which sells produce at 14 markets, all grown on a family farm in Moorpark.

But when NBCLA went to look at the farms referenced on the permits vendors have to sell at Farmer’s Markets, they found many that were abandoned or didn’t grow the cornucopia of items these vendors sold. NBCLA, for example, bought over 20 items from individual vendors all of whom, by state law, are restricted to selling only items they themselves grew.

But when NBCLA sent undercover reporters to follow the trucks headed to the Farmer’s Market, they wound up at big wholesale warehouses in downtown Los Angeles:

But our investigation also uncovered vendors who are selling stuff they didn’t grow, like Frutos Farms, which sells at seven different farmers markets in LA and Orange counties.

During our investigation, we bought 26 different types of produce from their stands at the Century City farmers market, at the Larchmont market and at the Buena Park market. Frutos Farm’s state permit to sell produce at farmers markets says their farm is in Cypress.

NBCLA asked owner Jesse Frutos, “Everything you sell at farmers markets is grown in your Cypress field?” Jesse responded, “Correct...everything.”

But when NBCLA made a surprise visit to the Cypress field listed on its permit, Frutos couldn’t show us most of the produce he was selling, such as celery, garlic, and avocados.

So NBCLA asked, “Do you grow avocados here?”

“Avocados? No, not here on the lot … That I’ll be honest. That stuff came from somewhere else,” Frutos said.

Somewhere else? NBCLA’s undercover cameras followed Jesse’s trucks on farmers market days, and saw him going to the big wholesale produce warehouses in downtown LA.

We saw him loading up his truck, with boxes of produce from big commercial farms as far away as Mexico. He bought many of the types of items we saw him selling at the farmers markets.

After documenting this, NBCLA asked Jesse, “You are selling some things at farmers markets that you didn’t grow, that you got at wholesale produce markets?”

Jesse admitted, “Yes.”

NBCLA also noted that all kinds of unsubstantiated and often false claims were being made about pesticides:

And during our investigation, NBCLA examined another big claim made at farmers markets—that their produce is “pesticide-free.”

NBCLA bought one container of strawberries, from five different vendors, at five farmers markets, including a vendor called “The Berry Best,” at the Torrance farmers market.

NBCLA’s undercover shopper questioned the Berry Best’s owner about the strawberries: “These are pesticide-free?”

Owner Mary Ellen Martinez responded, “Yes, they are.”

To see if that’s true, we took our five samples to a state-certified lab, and had them tested for pesticides. Results showed three out of five samples we tested sold berries that did contain pesticides, including the sample from the Berry Best.

NBCLA went back to Martinez.

“We found four different pesticides in your berries. Do you know how that happened?” we asked.

Responded Martinez, “Nope.”

She later said pesticides might have drifted into her field from neighboring farms. But according to our lab, that’s unlikely because the pesticide level on her berries appears too high to have drifted from another farm.

Martinez ended the interview with NBCLA, telling us to leave her stand, “You’re getting on my nerves right about now.”

The oddity of the article, though, is that the conclusion is completely belied by the entire report. Speaking to consumers, the reporters suggest the following as their conclusion:

So, how do you, the customer, know if a farmer is selling locally grown produce that really came from his farm?

Operators of farmers markets we spoke to suggest shoppers get to know vendors they buy from, and ask them a lot of questions. Ask for the exact location of the farm where the produce is grown. If they claim their produce is “pesticide-free,” ask them what methods they use to control pests on their crops. Ask exactly when the produce was picked.

If the farmer can’t give you specific answers, or seems unwilling to answer your questions, market operators say you should walk away.

Of course, all the fraudulent players interviewed gave direct answers and made specific claims to NBCLA. The idea that if you “get to know” a businessman committing fraud you will know whether he is fraudulent is ridiculous — go ask Bernie Madoff’s victims!

These are criminals defrauding the public, and this is a police matter. The fact that the operators of the farmer’s markets don’t act aggressively to prevent such a problem and that so little is heard about this from the pro-local community indicates the degree to which ideology has transcended reality.

You can watch the first of the NBCLA reports below:

View more news videos at: http://www.nbclosangeles.com/video.

Dr. Sloan Misses The Point: A Fighting Spirit Is Vital In Overcoming Illness

Readers of the Pundit know that recently we had many occasions to focus on what makes for effective medical care. Our friend Jan Fleming, from The Strube Celery & Vegetable Co., has had significant health issues and we’ve chronicled that story here, here, and here.

Our own father, Michael Prevor, was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and we explained that process in a piece we titled Never Tell Me The Odds: One Man, One Disease, One Battle.

So we turned with special interest to an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, that carried the provocative title, A Fighting Spirit Won’t Save Your Life.

Dr. Sloan points to a long history of people believing that positive attitude can impact illness:

The idea that an individual has power over his health has a long history in American popular culture. The “mind cure” movements of the 1800s were based on the premise that we can control our well-being. In the middle of that century, Phineas Quimby, a philosopher and healer, popularized the view that illness was the product of mistaken beliefs, that it was possible to cure yourself by correcting your thoughts. Fifty years later, the New Thought movement, which the psychologist and philosopher William James called “the religion of the healthy minded,” expressed a very similar view: by focusing on positive thoughts and avoiding negative ones, people could banish illness.

The idea that people can control their own health has persisted through Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking,” in 1952, to a popular book today, “The Secret,” by Rhonda Byrne, which teaches that to achieve good health all we have to do is to direct our requests to the universe.

But Dr. Sloan points out that the science isn’t there to support this idea:

But there’s no evidence to back up the idea that an upbeat attitude can prevent any illness or help someone recover from one more readily. On the contrary, a recently completed study of nearly 60,000 people in Finland and Sweden who were followed for almost 30 years found no significant association between personality traits and the likelihood of developing or surviving cancer. Cancer doesn’t care if we’re good or bad, virtuous or vicious, compassionate or inconsiderate. Neither does heart disease or AIDS or any other illness or injury.

And that imposing this expectation on people is bad medicine:

But such beliefs have implications for how we regard people who are ill. If people are insufficiently upbeat after a cancer diagnosis or inadequately “spiritual” after a diagnosis of AIDS, are we to assume they have willfully placed their health at risk? And if they fail to recover, is it really their fault? The incessant pressure to be positive imposes an enormous burden on patients whose course of treatment doesn’t go as planned.

Very early in my career, I participated in a study of young women who were hospitalized and awaiting the results of biopsies to determine if they had cervical cancer. While I was interviewing one of my patients, the biopsy results of the woman in the next bed came back to her — negative. The fortunate woman’s father, who was there with her, said in relief: “We’re good people. We deserve this.” It was a perfectly understandable response, but what should my patient have said to herself when her biopsy came back positive? That she got cancer because she wasn’t a good person?

It is difficult enough to be injured or gravely ill. To add to this the burden of guilt over a supposed failure to have the right attitude toward one’s illness is unconscionable. Linking health to personal virtue and vice not only is bad science, it’s bad medicine.

It is an interesting piece but we thought it something of an attack on a straw man. Yes, of course, being nice doesn’t mean you won’t get ill and being reverential provides no assurance of recovery.

But our experience is that “a fighting spirit” is EVERYTHING in a serious illness. To start with if one doesn’t have a fighting spirit, one may not get treated at all. After all, undergoing surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation is all a form of completely optional fighting for one’s health and survival. And Dr. Sloan would surely acknowledge that getting treated helps one’s prognosis enormously.

Then it is “a fighting spirit” that leads one to seek out optimal care. Jan Fleming lives in Chicago but flew to Pittsburgh to get the best surgeon. Mike Prevor went to M.D. Anderson in Houston, TX, though he lives in Florida. Dr. Sloan works for one of the most prominent medical institutions in the world. People make great sacrifices to go there for treatment rather than with a local oncologist or community hospital. Surely Dr. Sloan would see in the “fighting spirit” that leads one to sacrifice and travel to get optimum care an increased likelihood of positive outcome.

Once one is in care, recovery often depends crucially on patient motivation. It is often the case that physicians will emphasize the importance of getting up and walking after an operation or blowing into a Spirometer. Presumably Dr. Sloan agrees that these often very difficult and painful steps are not being prescribed to torture patients, so a “fighting spirit” that compels one to do these things will actually help in recovery and thus in securing a more successful outcome.

Finally, when the operations and procedures are over the patient has to continue to take medication, come in for follow-up visits, do appropriate blood work, scans, etc. Many patients don’t. At M.D. Anderson they won’t even do a stem cell transplant on you unless you have another person who signs a “contract” to make sure that you will show up for all your follow-up care.

The study Dr. Sloan relies on in proving his thesis that personality traits don’t matter in things medical is actually a study of extraversion and neuroticism in reference to getting cancer or surviving cancer.

But a “fighting spirit” is different than being an extrovert. One can be highly introverted and want to fight very hard for one’s life.

When the Pundit Poppa went in for his stem cell transplant five years years ago, we had gathered all his children, grandchildren, siblings, nephews and nieces at the hospital in Houston. The Pundit sister and brother-in-law had a new born baby and, not being allowed to fly yet, they heroically drove that baby from Los Angeles to Houston so that the newest grandchild could be part of the party.

This gathering was highly recommended by his physician, Dr. Richard Champlin, because for a then 69 year old man, the stem cell transplant was not likely to be an easy process. Put another way, he would need all the “fighting spirit” he could muster and the family gathering, just before he went into the hospital, was a powerful way of reminding him that he had something to fight for.

Medicinal Claims For Specific Produce Items Are Often Staked On Weak Research

Here at the Pundit, it is fair to say that we are inundated by promoters who submit studies purporting to prove that various fruits and vegetables have specific medicinal benefits.

We rarely write about these studies because most are too limited to prove much of anything. The number of participants is too small… there is no control group… the number of variables being tested at once obscures the results, etc.

The New York Times just ran a piece, titled Reputation of a Berry Is Difficult To Confirm by Abigail Zuger, M.D., that deals with recent efforts to confirm that the cranberry, long thought to be effective in preventing urinary infections, is actually effective in this manner:

For decades cranberry juice has enjoyed a reputation as an effective way to prevent bladder infections. Scientists have doggedly tried to confirm this well-known folk truth with dozens of studies, some in test tubes and some in people.

The latest results are now in, and the answer is conclusive: This field is all bogged down.

Some older studies found the juice worked. Some found it didn’t. All were too small to be definitive. In 1998 a substance presumed to be the active component in the cranberry was identified with some fanfare, and two years ago another study suggested that a cranberry extract containing this substance was almost as powerful as an antibiotic.

Now a large, impeccably designed and executed study of cranberry juice has found that the presumed active compound apparently has no effect. And yet the newest study closed no doors. It may simply mean that the juice works, but by an unknown mechanism.

The article goes on to explain that cranberries have hundreds of active substances and that old theories about why cranberries help have been disproven while newer theories have focused on the role of proanthocyanidin, a chemical related to tannin, which is in blueberry juice and in cranberry juice but not in other juices.

Finally, though, the article explains that an effort was made to resolve the matter once and for all:

…armed with a grant from the National Center for Alternative Medicine and cranberry juice cocktail from Ocean Spray, researchers in Michigan had set out in 2004 to do the definitive placebo-controlled study.

They enrolled young, healthy women who had just recovered from a bladder infection. Statistics predicted that about 30 percent of them could be expected to get another infection within six months.

Half the 319 subjects were assigned to drink 16 ounces of low-calorie cranberry juice cocktail daily. The others were given a placebo drink manufactured by Ocean Spray to look and taste the same, but with no cranberry content.

The results were published this month in Clinical Infectious Diseases. After six months, the women in the placebo group had 23 new infections and those in the cranberry group had 31, a statistically insignificant difference. The juice apparently offered no protection.

But that didn’t tell the whole story. The researchers had expected that 30% of the women would get a bladder infection again and both the control and the tested group came in well below that number. In fact, only 17% of the women had a recurring bladder infection. This raised the obvious question: Was there something in the placebo that gave women the same protection that the cranberry juice did?

In an interview, the senior author, Betsy Foxman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, offered some ideas for what could be going on.

Both the juice drink and the placebo contained vitamin C — could that have prevented recurrent infection? Could just drinking two extra cups of fluid per day have helped? Could it have something to do with the coloring used to tint the placebo — after all, antibiotics were first identified by the German dye industry.

“It is still a big question mark,” Dr. Foxman said. Her research into the cranberry is continuing.

In other words, even in a carefully designed study, simple variables such as the amount of fluid people drink can obscure the cause and effect.

This is why studies typically need to be done many times, by many researchers, in many different ways before we can have confidence in the results.

There is reasonably good research on broad categories of diet, such as the impact of eating fewer calories, and it is reasonable to surmise that it is easier to do that by eating cabbage than chicken fat, but the arguments that specific produce items offer specific medicinal benefits are mostly standing on research too weak to confirm the hypothesis.

Until more and better research is done, most of these claims fall into the category of “interesting, if true.”

Ramifications Of First Lady’s ‘Endorsement’ Of Wal-Mart’s Health Initiative

The decision of First Lady Michelle Obama to appear with Wal-Mart executives to endorse Wal-Mart’s new program that will, supposedly, help promote healthy eating is somewhat problematic.

As a matter of approach, it is just not clear that it is a good idea for government officials or the wife of the President to pluck out individual companies for praise or approbation. After all, getting the First Lady to your event guarantees it publicity and a halo effect of goodness. Perhaps in this instance everyone was above-board, but isn’t it likely that once it is established that First Ladies do this type of thing, it will influence campaign donations and lead to corruption?

Maybe that is why The Washington Post made a point of saying how unusual it was for a First Lady to get involved with a private company this way:

In a glowing endorsement of the type that first ladies have rarely, if ever, made of major corporations, Obama called Wal-Mart’s effort “a huge victory for folks all across this country,” and said it has the “potential to transform the marketplace.”

On the substantive level, it is not at all clear that Wal-Mart is doing any more than Costco, Safeway, Kroger or loads of other companies do to promote health. And there seems to be no set up by which the First Lady is going to monitor if Wal-Mart actually follows through on its promises

And one wonders if there aren’t ramifications that the office of the First Lady is not equipped to analyze. It is very nice that Wal-Mart promises to reduce produce prices, and it is even nicer that it claims it will do so without burdening farmers. But we suspect, and many doubt, that things will work out that way.

In any case, we wrote a column in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, on the subject, titled, Wal-Mart’s Health Move May Lead To Pressure On Produce Producers. You can read it here.

Video Of Terminal Market Wholesalers Does Not Portray Their True Function

Someone going by the name Electronic_Titan made a video titled Produce Salesman and Terminal Buyer. It is passing around the industry and several people sent it to us.

It is funny in the sense that it plays on a lot of the stereotypes that people have of terminal markets.

It also is very unfair.

When we worked on Hunts Point, we handled a lot of product on consignment or on a price-after-sale basis. The Pundit Poppa taught us quickly that to serve our shippers, the most important thing we had to do was sell the product so that the shippers could send us more. Of course, there was often unhappiness with the price but, understood correctly, we were being used to keep all their other sales at higher prices, which is why they shipped to us week after week.

The key tool to keeping a shipper strong is that he has another place to send the product. Although sometimes terminal market wholesalers have specific orders to fill and so function as defacto buying agents for retailers or foodservice operators, one thing that differentiates the big terminal markets is that they are much more flexible on the quantity and quality they can accept.

What typically happens is that shippers sell everyone in the world who will buy at their fixed FOB. This can include wholesalers who need the product to fulfill set orders, but typically the shippers go first to their retail customers and their foodservice customers.

But often shippers have a problem. If they have 40 trailers of product today and their customers buy 35, what are they to do with the last 5 — considering they have 40 more coming tomorrow?

They could go back to their customers and, perhaps, if they have a good relationship, the customers will try to help them. But very likely they will say that the only way they can buy more is if they go on special with the product, and to do that they will need a new price not only on the extra trailer they will buy but on the ones they have already bought.

So selling to a terminal market is often a way of getting the last product sold that doesn’t impact the price on product already sold.

The video lacks all this nuance, but the stereotypes will get their share of laughs:

Unrest In Egypt Has Its Origins In Produce

By far the most consequential event in the world this week is the unrest in Egypt. It, of course, is a follow-up to the unrest in Tunisia, which led to that nation’s longtime ruler to flee. There is every possibility that other Arab countries will also see unrest.

This may, of course, all end up badly. It is not uncommon for terrible dictators to be replaced by worse dictators, as happened in Iran when the Shah was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini.

At its base, though, the unrest is a positive thing. It indicates that Arabs and Muslims yearn for freedom just as we do.

It is not often noted but is worth noting that the whole thing took off because a produce vendor in Tunisia kept getting his cart confiscated as his freedom to do business was deprived by a mesh of corruption, laws and regulations. When options of complaint proved unavailing, when he was insulted and slapped by a female police officer, the vendor set himself aflame.

I don’t know the words in Arabic, but in burning himself, what was he saying but the words of Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

And to think, it all started with a produce cart.

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