‘Organic’ Beef Scam

New York Post
November 18, 2002

'ORGANIC' BEEF SCAM
by Jeane MacIntosh & Matthew McDermott

Health chain relabels regular meat 'natural'

The upscale organic-food chain Healthy Pleasures has been scamming customers by repackaging conventional meat and passing it off as organic and natural, a Post investigation has found.

The chain has been relabeling beef at its three Manhattan stores, according to current and ex-employees and industry insiders, gouging customers by several dollars per pound on some cuts.

"People trust them to sell them a superior product, and that is just not happening," said one source, who asked to remain anonymous. "The beef is marked 'natural' and 'organic,' and often that simply isn't the case."

Organic meat producers are prohibited by the USDA from using hormones, pesticides and antibiotics in the raising of farm animals. Natural meat must be "minimally processed" and contain no artificial ingredients, according to USDA rules.

Healthy Pleasures owner Helen Burgess and chain manager Omar Bashar contend their meat business is legit.

But after being asked about The Post's findings, Bashar and two store workers surrounded a Post photographer on the street and wrestled a camera from his hands. His photos were destoyed, and the three men were charged with felony robbery, criminal mischief and criminal possession of stolen property.

The Post's probe found:

*Current and former workers have been instructed to remove meat purchased from IBP — a nationwide producer of conventional beef that doesn't handle organic or natural products — from bulk packaging and put it in butcher display cases with organic and natural labels.
"We would open the boxes, take the meat from the bulk bags and carry it upstairs on a lug," said a former employee. "Then we would put it in the case and stick the natural and organic signs on it. We were told never to take IBP boxes up to the selling floor, where customers might see them."

*The University Place store gets frequent deliveries from IBP, though manager Bashar said the chain offers "only a very minimal amount" of conventional beef and "only when natural or organic product isn't available."

Last Wednesday, there was one cut of conventional beef for sale at University Place — a roast — compared with three rows of organic and natural beef. On other visits to all three stores during a three-week period, The Post saw only one other cut of convetional beef for sale.

Following the delivery of a number of large IBP boxes to University Place witnessed by The Post last week, a reporter placed three calls to Bashar seeking comment. He did not return them.

*The manager of the meat department at the University Place store said the store buys its entire supply of organic and natural meat from E&S, a top Meat Packing District distributor. But E&S owner Evan Wexler said he sells "a small amount" of organic meat to Healthy Pleasures and that its most recent delivery was Oct. 8. E&S does not carry natural beef.

Bashar refuted his manager's account, saying the chain bought all its beef from Alberts Organic and Green Circle, not mentioning IBP. "Some of my employees are new and don't know the product," he said.

*Less than an hour after speaking with The Post Wednesday, Bashar called in large orders for organic and natural meat from Alberts Organic and Green Circle, the organic meat producer used by many of the city's top restaurants and food stores.

Reps for both firms confirmed that Bashar placed calls late Wednesday asking for large quantitites of organic and natural beef to be delivered the next day. "They were scrambling to get their house in order" one insider said.

Organic and natural beef fetches top dollar from health-conscious food shoppers, but prices for such meat at Healthy Pleasures are significantly lower than at competing stores.

For example, organic rib-eye steaks at Healthy Pleasures were being sold for $10.99 per pound last Tuesday.

At Citarella, they were $23.99 per pound. At Gourmet Garage, natural rib-eyes sold for $14.99 per pound. Conventional rib-eyes at supermarkets ranged from $8.99 to $10.99.

"They are selling their organic and natural beef often for less than most of us can buy it for," said one competitor.

A Department of Agriculture and Markets spokeswoman said the agency has had no complaints against Healthy Pleasures involving meat labeling or packaging. Fraudulent mislabeling of meat can carry tens of thousands of dollars in potential fines.

Approached at her University Place office Wednesday, Burgess declined to comment and referred all questions to Bashar, who sat for an interview and gave a store tour.

"Whoever is telling you these things must be disgruntled — because it's not true," Bashar said. He insisted meat in his butcher cases was not mislabeled and offered to provide inventory invoices as proof.

But Bashar never supplied the invoices and did not respond to follow-up requests to see the paperwork. His assistant referred calls to Burgess' lawyer, Preston Leschins, who didn't return calls.

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