Officers put roadside vendors under scrutiny

Issue Date: September 16, 2009
Christine Souza

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.

Amid the interest in locally grown produce, there is also a need to ensure that what consumers buy locally is also legal.

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—to protect consumers from unsafe produce and farms from theft.

"We have hammered our roadside vendors to the point where they are almost nonexistent in Kern County," said Sgt. Walt Reed of the Kern County Sheriff's Department Rural Crimes Investigation Unit. "They 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 recalls one case where fruit stolen from a farm was discovered being sold by a roadside vendor.

"In this particular case, we confirmed that thieves had stolen peaches, plums and nectarines and were selling them out of the roadside vendors in Mettler," Reed said. "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."

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, followed by sweet corn in the summer.

"We speculate that some of the product we are seeing could be related to theft. In the inspections that we do, everybody is obligated to have proof of ownership and a receipt," said Tulare County Sheriff's Department Ag Crimes Unit Sgt. Rob Schimpf. "They have to prove the source of whatever commodity they are in possession of, and we see receipts where fruit was purchased locally to Los Angeles."

Roadside vendors in Tulare County must have three permits: from California Weights and Measures, from California Department of Food and Agriculture Market Enforcement to show the purchase and sale of fruit grown in California, 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. 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," said Tulare County Sheriff's Department Lt. Scott Logue.

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 putting 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 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.

Diversified grower 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 to commit such a high-volume theft with a forklift, bins and a truck.

Dan Van Groningen of Van Groningen and Sons Inc. in Manteca said he and his fellow growers in San Joaquin County have experienced plenty of thefts of melons and other crops. Van Groningen is doing what he can to prevent thefts, but he and many other growers also have a system in place for selling seconds to people interested in making some additional money and doing so legally.

"There is an invoice for everything that goes out, even if it is one crate of corn," Van Groningen said. "If they are selling somewhere and a deputy stops them and says, 'Where did you get this?,' there is a tag that they better produce. If they don't have an invoice, you don't know where it comes from."

Danielle Rau, California Farm Bureau Federation director of rural crime prevention, recommends that growers take precautions to protect their valuable commodities, and 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 and it's difficult to determine who is legally selling products and who isn't. Consumers can ensure they aren't the market for stolen fruits and vegetables by making the decision to support local growers at certified farm stands and farmers' markets," Rau said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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