Tip Trips Up Phony Organic Sales at Farmers Market

Federal District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe, based in Albany, New York, has sentenced Craig Acton, who operated Hoosic River Poultry, a small upstate New York farm  in Buskirk (Rensselaer County) to serve two years on probation and complete 50 hours of community service for his “fraudulent use of a United States Department of Agriculture inspection legend on meat products” that he sold at New York City Greenmarkets.  During a six month period in 2011, Acton purchased chicken from various conventional commercial sources and repackaged the chicken to sell it as organic at farmers markets in the Big Apple.

The Bennington Banner reported that Acton told investigators that a flood killed 1,000 chickens on his upstate New York  farm putting him “in dire financial straits.”  Acton marketed chicken he sold at the farmers markets in New York City as “farm-raised, free-range chickens with no medications or hormones added.”  He purchased about $1,200 in chicken per week and sold it in the Big Apple for $5,000.

In the summer of 2011, the USDA received a tip from its hotline that Acton was repackaging conventional chicken and selling it as organic at farmers markets in New York City.  According to a report in the Albany Times Union, “Investigators learned that Acton had been selling meat at greenmarkets for years with false inspection labels.”  The Inspector General’s Office of the USDA was responsible for the investigation, which was the basis for the successful prosecution by Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Hanlon.

The USDA Office of Inspector General maintains a hotline for the reporting (anonymously or confidentially) violations of laws and regulations relating to USDA programs.  This hotline at 1-800-424-9121 (or 202-690-1622) receives tips on criminal activities such as bribery, smuggling, theft, fraud, and endangermemt of public health or safety.   The USDA’s  Meat and Poultry Hotline receives more than 80,000 calls yearly at 1-888-674-6854.  The majority of these calls comes from consumers regarding how “to properly handle their food, including food safety during power outages; food manufacturer recalls; food borne illnesses; and for inspection of meat, poultry and egg production.”

Maria Rodale in her powerful Organic Manifesto noted that “Chemical farms are in production on about 930 million acres in the United States and 3.8 billion acres globally.”  In contrast, with 13,000 certified organic farmers in America, and a few thousand more who are organic but uncertified, organic farming practices are in use on only 4 million acres in the United States and 30.4 million acres globally.  To ensure that food sold as organic is truly organic (deserving to be sold at higher prices) is of upmost importance, not only to protect consumers but also to motivate more growers to utilize organic farming methods.

Although Acton’s criminal conduct was reprehensible, in this age of globalization and industrial agriculture, news of rat meat sold as lamb in China provides a certain perspective on judging the ills of the world.  As reported in the New York Times, “even for China’s scandal-numbed diners . . . . that the lamb simmering in the pot may actually be rat tested new depths of disgust.”  Acton’s defense attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender George E. Baird, Jr. noted that the chicken “that was repackaged was always done properly and under sanitary conditions, it was refrigerated during transport” and would not “cause anyone to become ill.”   With the latest food scandal in China in mind, he also might have added, it was at least chicken.   Closer to home, Frank Bruni in his must read column, Of Fraud and Filet, cited information from the conservation group Oceana that “of more than 1,200 samples of seafood from about 675 stores and restaurants in 20 states and the District of Columbia . . . one-third of these samples had been peddled as something other than what they were [emphais added].”

Given such food scams, it’s with some relief that the USDA has released a final rule on “country of origin labeling” (COOL) for meat products which took into consideration, in the words of Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch,  the right of consumers “to know where the food they feed their families comes from.”  USDA’s new COOL rules significantly improve the disclosure of information to consumers, and according to Ms. Hauter, “The final rule eliminates the vague and misleading ‘mixed origin’ country of origin label for meat and ensures that each cut of meat clearly displays each stage of production (where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered) on the label.”  Hopefully, there are sufficient resources available to implement this rule successfully and ensure its integrity.
(Frank W. Barrie, 6/1/13)

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