Based in inner-north Melbourne’s Brunswick East, CERES is a popular not-for-profit environment education centre and public farm that hosts farmers’ markets and sells weekly fruit and vegetable boxes to locals. But after a report earlier this month by The Sunday Age on levels of lead contamination at the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies farm, sales at the CERES market dropped 30%, weekly orders disappeared and staff shifts had to be cut.
Problem is, The Sunday Age article relied on information from interim test results from Moreland Council, which had people testing for contamination at the site. Final test results (reported in The Sunday Age the following week) showed that soil levels on the CERES farm had similar lead levels to a suburban backyard and no contaminated food was ever sold — although three private plots at CERES had high lead levels.
But that first report had a big impact.
“Straight away, that night, we dropped 50 boxes,” Chris Ennis, manager for CERES Organic Farm and CERES Fair Food, told Crikey. CERES Fair Food sources the overwhelming majority of its produce from organic farmers located near Melbourne.
“The second week after the story we were 100 boxes [down] — it was 50 boxes then it was 100 boxes down. We were wondering whether we would go out of business.”
Staff have lost work. “We’ve cut shifts down,” said Ennis. “Less boxes means less drivers. We’re trying to cut casual shifts and put permanent staff on day shifts. We’re doing what any business does when it gets tight.”
CERES is one of Victoria’s largest buyers of organic produce, and the fallout from the media report has affected independent producers as well, with orders to them from CERES down 30 to 40%.
There’s also a market held onsite three times a week. “The market went quiet,” said Ennis. “They were hit harder because I think for the on-site factor; they were down 30-plus per cent straight away. Last week, on Wednesday … it was like a ghost town. No one’s ever seen anything like it. It was just absolutely dead.”
In The Sunday Age report freelance journalist Steve Holland wrote that tests found that CERES produce was contaminated with lead and other poisons, but the interim results found that 27 of 28 test locations around the site had no contamination.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Mark Forbes is The Sunday Age’s deputy editor and agrees that the story was based on interim test results, but says that there were no other results available before March 4.
“CERES had acted on these test results to withdraw from sale all food grown on the site,” Forbes wrote in an email. “This ban was still in place at the time of publication.”
Only about 5% of food distributed by CERES Fair Food is sourced from land CERES uses, and this land is located two kilometres from the Brunswick East farm that was subject to the tests.
The final results of tests done at the farm were released a week after the initial report and they reveal that only three locations produced crops that had lead levels equal to or higher than the maximum level for lead concentrations in leafy vegetables other than brassicas, based on the Australia New Zealand Food Standard Code.
The affected locations are all in allotment plots that are rented out to Melbourne residents who grow produce for private use.
“CERES are only claiming they were cleared by the subsequent, ‘final’ results, released after the first story,” Forbes told Crikey.
“The final results were not available until after the story was published.”
“Just because one [report] at an interim level of testing has shown there was a problem in one area doesn’t mean that was the outcome,” said Robert Larocca, CERES chairman. “It doesn’t mean that you can infer from that that we’d been poisoning people.”
Forbes also noted that “CERES has claimed that it has been ‘cleared’ by the EPA. The EPA states this is not the case.”
It’s true that CERES does write on one of its website pages that the council and EPA gave them the “all clear”, but it no longer claims as such on its main CERES Safe Food information site. Larocca explained to Crikey that CERES has misunderstood exactly which government authority had approved what and it was the Moreland council and the Department of Health that had “cleared” CERES’ food as safe. EPA confirmed that it only provided advice to the council in its investigation.
A week after the original media report appeared, The Sunday Age printed another story with the final test results in view. The lede paragraph read: “Levels of contamination found in produce from Melbourne’s prime urban environmental and ecological farm, CERES, were safe and similar to those found in most suburban backyards, it has been claimed.”
The “claim” came from Peter Brown, the CEO of Moreland Council, the council that ran the lead testing. In the fourth paragraph of the article it notes that the final council tests confirmed that no produce sold by CERES posed a public health risk.
But CERES says the fallout from the initial Sunday Age article is still being felt. “I don’t feel that they’ve rectified it, no,” said Larocca. “The problem is that the damage is done. It’s a black mark on our name at the same time as, in the end, nothing happened.
“We were just acting with extreme caution. We went so far as to freely admit that there were three samples that had a problem, but explained where they were. But that became the lede on the story when in fact that would have affected no more than three people. Or, at least, three households.”
“Our job is to report the facts at the time of publication,” replies Forbes. “CERES did have a contamination scare, believed it may have sold contaminated produce to the public and had halted the sale of produce from the site. Surely that is in the public interest to report that?”