Connecticut agriculture officials are stepping up enforcement procedures to ensure that all fruits and vegetables bearing the Connecticut Grown label actually were grown in the state.
“It is essential that consumers who purchase agricultural products labeled ‘Connecticut Grown’ be confident those products were, in fact, grown and produced here in Connecticut,” Steven Reviczky, Connecticut’s commissioner of agriculture, said in a news release.
The state-overseen Connecticut Grown program, established in 1986, validates homegrown items with a green and blue Connecticut Grown logo.
Reviczky called it critical that all products marked “local” and/or “native” are what sellers claim them to be.
“Connecticut laws are very clear about the definition of these terms with respect to farm products,” Revickzky said.
Indeed, for the 2013 growing season, state agriculture agents started to conduct unannounced inspections at farmers’ markets and other sales venues. The state department of agriculture also looked into complaints alleging inappropriate marketing of local farm products.
Connecticut General Statutes Section 22-38 states that “Any person, firm, partnership or corporation advertising farm products as ‘native,’ ‘native grown,’ ‘local,’ ‘locally grown’, or ‘Connecticut grown’ shall be required to furnish written proof within 10 days of the sale of such products that such products were grown or produced in Connecticut or within a 10-mile radius of the point of sale, as applicable, if requested to do so by the commissioner of agriculture or said commissioner’s designee.”
A fine of up to $25 can be assessed with each violation, and the state departments of Agriculture and Consumer Protection can tack on additional penalties, said Bruce Sherman, director of the Bureau of Regulation and Inspection with the department of agriculture.
Or, at least, they will be assessed moving forward, Sherman said.
“We started slowly, letting people know about the rules but didn’t issue fines this year,” he said.
Officials won’t be so lenient in 2014, Sherman said.
“This year, it was more warnings because this was the first year we went out and did this stuff,” he said.
The Bureau of Marketing administers the Connecticut Grown program, but enforcement of the rules fell to Sherman’s department, Sherman said.
“The marketing department wasn’t enforcing the rules, and we felt it was better that our bureau did it, so there wasn’t a conflict with the people who are promoting,” he said.
Monetary sanctions aren’t unprecedented, though. The Connecticut Weekly Agricultural Report announcement cited a 2005 case in which a company paid the state $70,075 for falsely using the Connecticut Grown logo on its egg cartons and deceptively using the word “farm” in its trade name.
State officials have been getting repeated complaints from some Connecticut growers that out-of-state product is being brought in and sold as locally grown.
“No one goes around right now checking on the use of the Connecticut Grown label,” Mark Zotti, one of two state agriculture officials responsible for monitoring and promoting farmers markets, told the Advocate back in March.
The intensified scrutiny has uncovered “a few violations” in 2013, Sherman said.
“Some people that actually were growing products would also purchase other products that weren’t grown in Connecticut,” he said.
Sherman said spotting violations sometimes isn’t difficult.
“You can tell often when they’re out of season,” he said.
Whether violations were common misses the point of the enhanced enforcement, Revickzky said.
“While we do not believe misuse of the Connecticut Grown label is widespread, we recognize that trust is quickly damaged in the rare instances it does occur,” he said in the news release.
Complaints have been filed predominantly by growers, not consumers, Sherman said.
“We weren’t getting complaints from consumers so much, but I don’t think they realized that Connecticut Grown logo is a real selling point to consumers,” he said.
Produce vendors said there is increased call for Connecticut Grown produce.
“We’re definitely receiving a lot more recently than in the past, as far as locally grown produce,” said Al Parziale, president of Hartford, Conn.-based Tinarose Produce LLC.
State-grown fruits and vegetables are a key part of retail produce sales, said Lindsay Hawley, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop New England, a Quincy, Mass.-based retail chain.
“Connecticut has a strong locally grown program, especially in the Connecticut River Valley area,” she said.
Paul Ryan, president of CT Fresh Inc., Stamford, Conn., said he hasn’t seen any violations of the Connecticut Grown rules.