"There is no public health risk associated with CERES. Tests on various food conducted by the council from the site revealed no results with any immediate public health significance."

- Department of Health

The Real Dirt on CERES

Released Friday 16th March, 2012
Revised Wednesday 21st March, 2012

What’s the worst thing that can happen to an environment park that educates kids and grows food? A contamination scare that breaks in the city’s most trusted paper.

Appearing on page three of The Sunday Age, March 4th edition, just the week before CERES Organic Farm was given the all clear by Moreland City Council and the Department of Health, a feature article reported, “produce grown at CERES banned from sale” because of lead contamination. The timing of Steve Holland’s article could not have been worse or more mischievous.

If The Sunday Age had bothered to check their story, the real but far less newsworthy story would have revealed that Moreland City Council testing had found five privately leased community garden plots with lead levels slightly over ANZFSC limits and that produce from CERES Organic Farm had never been contaminated or banned from sale. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story they say.

When I read the article, including a quote from CERES chairperson, Robert Larocca, which seemed to back up the story, my first thoughts were, “That’s not right and why would Robert confirm it?”

And then I found out how some journalists work and it all became clear. At the time of the interview in January the final Moreland City Council test results hadn’t come out but Steve Holland obtained a leaked version of the preliminary results. The document had the test results but not the locations of the tests. Wrongly assuming the results referred to the CERES Organic Farm instead of the community garden plots, Holland used the report to ask Robert Larocca what he would say to people who could have eaten contaminated CERES produce? Larocca’s reply was, “It is unfortunate it has happened and we are sorry for that. A very small number of people will have purchased that [contaminated food], including myself.” It was an honest answer to a hypothetical question but Holland used the quote make it seem like CERES had actually been selling contaminated produce without ever checking his story was correct.

Two months passed before the article was finally published. It would have only taken a simple phone call to discover that Council test results had cleared produce sold at CERES and isolated the problem to a small number of 4x4m community garden plots not accessible to the general public. But no phone call was made, the story went to print and all hell broke loose.

I’ve been feeling sick about this for the last fortnight. I used to trust The Age. I read it every day, but now I feel like CERES’ good name has been destroyed by sloppy journalism and a paper eager for a controversial story. Two weeks later and it’s all old news; Moreland City Council came out with their test results clearing CERES Organic Farm, new articles have been written with the facts but fear is a powerful motivator and people are turning away from CERES. The damage has been done.

The outcome has been immediate for CERES; Fair Food orders are down, the Market is quiet. We are reducing what we buy from the 50 plus Victorian farmers and processors who depend on us for their income. Our packers and drivers are losing shifts and CERES will need to take money away from environmental education programs to cover the financial losses of Fair Food and Market. So much damage caused by a few careless words.

We can’t beat this alone. CERES has always lived and died on the support of our community, so we’re asking you to tell your friends the real story, to share it through your networks. We’re asking you to stand by our farmers and our packers & drivers by placing your Fair Food orders and by shopping at CERES Market. We’re asking you to stand up for CERES.

Chris Ennis


CERES Fair Food and Organic Farm

CERES food is safe food

8 March 2012

CERES Community Environment Park has welcomed the outcomes of produce tissue test results conducted the 29 November 2011 and more substantial tests on 23 January 2012.

CERES Chairperson Robert Larocca said the test results confirm that no produce sold from CERES market gardens had posed a public health risk.

‘Food tested from the various market gardens contained levels of lead safely within the standards set by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. These results confirm previous results from testing commissioned by CERES, also in November 2011.

‘Visitors and customers of CERES can have faith that the food they purchase is safe. CERES market gardens have been organically certified since 2003 and through Fair Food we are one of the largest purchasers of Victorian grown organic produce in the state.

‘It is unfortunate that Council results have also corroborated previous findings by CERES that some plots in the Community Gardens contained some produce outside of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code levels. These are isolated and contained in fenced parts of the main CERES site, which are not accessible to the general public. We will work with Community Gardeners and Council to remediate the plots affected.

‘At no time has food grown on the site been sold to the public whilst there was a concern over its safety. The original concern arose after testing by visiting students, suggested excessive lead levels in some produce grown on site. After that CERES acted responsibly to cease supplying potentially affected food, while rigorous testing was undertaken by Council and CERES.

‘We are very proud of the work undertaken by the community over the last 30 years to turn what was once a tip into productive urban oasis. We know that there is, however, always more work needed to ensure it remains that way,’ Mr Larocca concluded.

CERES Chairperson Robert Larocca is available for further comment 0409 198 350 or robert_larocca@yahoo.com.au

CERES Independent Testing Results

ProduceTestresultsgraph SoilTestresultsgraph

Soil and vegetable tissue information


The Health-based Soil Investigation Levels (Commonwealth of Australia, 2001) sets a guideline of 300mg/kg of lead in soil for residential areas with substantial vegetable gardens.

The NASAA Organic Standard sets maximum permissible level of lead in soil of 100mg/kg.

The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code - Standard 1.4.1 - Contaminants and Natural Toxicants states a maximum level of 0.1mg/kg for lead concentrations in all leafy vegetables other than brassicas.

All soil contains a natural concentration of lead:

‘Lead occurs naturally in soils, typically at concentrations that range from 10 to 50 mg/kg (milligrams of lead per kilogram of soil, equivalent to parts of lead per million parts of soil, or ppm). Because of the widespread use of leaded paint before the mid-1970s and leaded gasoline before the mid-1980s, as well as contamination from various industrial sources, urban soils often have lead concentrations much greater than normal background levels. These concentrations frequently range from 150 mg/kg to as high as 10,000 mg/kg.’ (Richard Stehouwer, 1999)

It is generally been considered safe to use garden produce grown in soils with total lead levels less than 300mg/kg. Furthermore, ’most of the risk is from lead contaminated soil or dust deposits on the plants rather than from uptake of lead by the plant’ (Carl J Rosen, 2010).

Furthermore, produce grown in soil that is high in organic matter is a lot less likely to absorb lead in the soil:

‘If your soil is high in organic matter and at an approximately neutral acidic level (i.e. a pH of about 6.5 to 7), most of the lead that is present in the soil will become bound to soil particles in a way that prevents it from being incorporated into growing crops.’ (The Lead Education and Abatement Design Group, 1997)

Back to Ceres.org.au

Questions & Concerns

CERES Contact Details

General Information: CERES Reception, 9389 0100
Community Garden Plot Holders: Nick Curmi, CERES Site Manager, 9389 0177, nick@ceres.org.au
Media: Robert Larocca, CERES Chairperson, 0409 198 350, robert_larocca@yahoo.com.au
Social: CERES Facebook Page | CERES Twitter Page

Other Organisations

Moreland City Council: Phone 9420 1111 or info@moreland.vic.gov.au

Press Releases & Articles

Date Release Details
12th of March Triple R Audio:
Adam Grubb on the Grapevine

13th of March Moreland Leader Article:
'Moreland council action follows CERES alert.'
11th of March The Age Article:
'Contamination 'no threat' to city farm.'
8th of March Moreland Council Press Release:
Media statement from Peter Brown, Chief Executive Officer.
8th of March CERES Press Release:
'CERES Food is safe food.'
4th of March CERES Press Release:
'CERES Community Environment Park responds to incorrect soil contamination accusations.'
4th of March The Age, 'Contaminated produce grown on environmental farm'.

CERES Retail Produce Meets the Following Standards

Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code
Standard 1.4.1 Contaminants and Natural Toxicants.
Link to full text

Health-based Soil Investigation Levels,
Commonwealth of Australia, 2001. Link to full text

Have your say

We're interested in hearing your feedback. Do you have any more questions and concerns? How do you think we've handled the issue?