Eli Zabar’s Customers Squeamish Over Roof Garden Veggies

Some customers are wondering if there are traces of arsenic in the $18-a-pound “organic” lolla rosa and baby arugula salad sold at Eli Zabar’s Vinegar Factory on East 91st Street. But if Eli Zabar, the would-be Ralph Lauren of tony produce, has a serious problem on his hands, you’d never know it. Chewing on an unidentified piece of food while he chatted recently on his portable phone from somewhere out of town, he asks in a blasé tone, “What are their concerns?” He doesn’t seem too worried what the answer is. Why should he be? Mr. Zabar just erected a half-block-long homage to himself on the site of his future store, Eli’s Manhattan Warehouse, on Third Avenue and East 80th Street. “What we love about Eli Zabar,” the vinyl billboard tells pedestrians on Manhattan’s East Side, “the bread … the food … the quality … energy … the ideas that never stop.”

True enough, Mr. Zabar, the renegade scion of the famous West Side Zabar family, has energetically created one successful business after another. First there was E.A.T. (where it’s been said that biting your nails costs $10) on upper Madison Avenue, then there was the wholesale bakery Eli’s Bread. Now Prada-toting gourmands regularly pack in to buy everything from pubescent veggies to aged Gruyère at his gourmet food warehouse, the Vinegar Factory.

But Mr. Zabar’s latest idea, a greenhouse on the roof of the Vinegar Factory, has some of his most loyal customers angrily crimping their appetites. There’s a small problem in epicurean paradise: Mr. Zabar’s expensive rooftop-garden vegetables–some labeled as “organic”–are grown in raised beds boxed with wood that has been soaked in arsenic, chromium and copper, commonly known as pressure-treated wood. Ted Cancalosi, a jeweler who works in the area and regularly shops at the store, is worried. “I won’t buy any of his produce unless I’m assured it hasn’t been grown on the roof,” he said.

Mr. Cancalosi isn’t the only one who’s concerned. When The Observer made a routine inquiry to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, spokesman Pete Gregg said the use of pressure-treated wood in commercial vegetable gardens would raise a red flag. “We would have a problem with that,” he said. “We object to the practice [of using pressure-treated wood], and if after testing we find that a product has been adulterated by this practice, we shall seize the product and take it off sale.” Mr. Gregg said the extensive watering used in large commercial beds would increase the chances of low-level contamination from the treated wood. “The vegetables would absorb the chemicals like sponges,” he said.

The potential harmful effects of pressure-treated wood have been widely debated. Organic farmers generally shun the product because the preservative chemicals (chromated copper arsenicals or C.C.A.) leach into surrounding soil (just how much leaches depends on which study one reads). “Pressure-treated wood is prohibited from being used in garden beds on our certified organic farms,” said Pat Kane, who is the administrator of certification at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. Breathing sawdust or smoke from the wood has serious consequences. Direct ingestion of wood particles can … well, two quarter horses reportedly got sick and died after gnawing on a pressure-treated fence in Florida.

However, lumber-industry experts maintain that the wood is safe and the amount of leaching is nontoxic. The Environmental Protection Agency says that pressure-treated wood does not pose “unreasonable risks” or “significant health concerns” (as long as workers wear chemically impervious gloves, long-sleeved shirts and pants when handling the wood, and wash sawdust-contaminated clothes separately). But this has not assuaged worried shoppers. Their reaction echoes the concern of millions of parents who watched a Hard Copy exposé last year on the dangers of C.C.A.-treated wood in children’s playgrounds.

“We were horrified,” said Mr. Cancalosi whose office has a bird’s-eye view of the Vinegar Factory’s roof garden. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Cancalosi and a fellow office mate looked across at the incomplete greenhouse. Stacks of greenish treated lumber lay on the roof; newly constructed beds had been filled with soil; tiny green leaves poked through the dark dirt. “It’s obviously pressure-treated wood,” he said. “We saw him building the beds with it. Then we saw him putting the dirt directly into it.” Mr. Cancalosi and his friend shook their heads in dismay. “And he likes to brag about his organic garden!” Down below on the busy street, nearly two dozen delivery trucks and vans were idling or parked, and in the space of a few minutes, three city buses and two sanitation trucks roared by, spewing dark exhaust fumes into the air.

Zabar ‘Brought in Ladybugs’

“I’m not making any claim that it’s organic,” Mr. Zabar repeated a half-dozen times in between bites on his cell phone. But as of June 16, when a reporter visited the store, a tangy mountain of exotic mesclun was clearly marked as being baby organic salad harvested from the rooftop greenhouse. Propped above the sign was a three-foot-tall color photograph of Mr. Zabar himself, the proud “urban farmer,” with his arm draped around his produce manager’s shoulder. Just about every bin in the area is marked organic. Down the aisle, Mr. Zabar sells the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s guide and recipe books, which the Vinegar Factory newsletter reviewed: “Organic farming can only benefit from our increasing awareness of the dangers of chemical insecticides and our desire to raise healthy children.” Mr. Zabar has made a big deal in his market newsletter about the fraises des bois that were grown in the greenhouse. An article about the garden, and a photograph of Mr. Zabar’s twin sons gardening in the greenhouse, have appeared in The New York Times .

“My goal is to grow things in a healthy way,” Mr. Zabar said. He said all the soil used in the roof garden was imported from McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, N.Y. He stressed that no chemicals or sprays have been used. “When we had aphids, we brought in ladybugs.”

But Mr. Cancalosi and some other neighborhood shoppers said they aren’t buying it. They’ve restricted their purchases at the Vinegar Factory, not just out of concern about their health, but also because they’re angry at being duped.

“I object to being lied to and being taken for a ride,” said one customer whom we’ll call Sally (she asked that her real name not be used). “I’m a concerned shopper. I want to buy what’s clean and good.” Sally said she pays the extra price for healthy organic food. “But I want it to be what it’s advertised as. This is not clean, healthy food.” Sally, who admitted she still buys Eli’s Bread, did some research about pressure-treated wood and complained in April to store managers about the rooftop boxes. The manager said he would pass along the information to his boss. Indeed, the organic signs subsequently vanished for a few weeks, but then reappeared. “I’m not certain what the sign in the store says. I’ll have to go take a look at it,” said Mr. Zabar, who is known to be a brusque perfectionist about every detail in his stores. “Any signs in the store that are misleading will be changed immediately.”

That doesn’t soothe everyone’s fears. “I think the use of pressure-treated wood for raised garden beds is alarming,” said Senga Mortimer, gardening editor at House & Garden magazine. “These chemicals are usually toxic and can be absorbed by any plants,” whether those plants are organic or not.

If shoppers can’t believe what Mr. Zabar says about his own vegetables, some patrons muse, how can they be sure about the baby carrots and cucumber in the neighboring bins that are labeled as being from someone else’s organic farm? It’s a problem for any shopper in any food store in New York State because there are no laws in New York that govern what is considered organic.

Mr. Gregg of the Agriculture Department said, “You can slap an organic label on a Twinkie, and no one can say you can’t.” The department, Mr. Gregg explained, used to test organic foods around the state for pesticides. “We were finding high levels of pesticide residue on ‘organic’ fruits, but because there is no law, we couldn’t take any action against these people who were fraudulently presenting their products to consumers. It’s a self-regulating industry, and there are going to be some bad apples.” In fact, Mr. Gregg warned, organic fruits and vegetables may be less safe to eat than regular produce because they are unregulated.

Because of these problems, the booming organic-farming business community is trying to come up with regulations and standards to ensure that high-priced vegetables sold as organic are true to their label. Currently, only about 13 states have laws or regulations governing organic food. The National Organic Standards, or N.O.S., proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been scorned by organic organizations, which claim the N.O.S. has loopholes wide enough for a tanker trailer of insecticides to drive through. While the original N.O.S. was split on the use of pressure-treated wood, the revised version some experts think will take a tougher stand. “My feeling is the revised proposal will prohibit the use of pressure-treated wood in organic farming,” said Cheryl Long, research editor of Organic Gardening magazine. A revised N.O.S. is in the works, but it may take years to be agreed on.

On his portable phone, Mr. Zabar pedaled back and forth between talking about how everything in his greenhouse is organic and healthy, and saying he is not claiming that the products are organic. (Subsequent to the conversation, signs in the store were changed to say the vegetables are grown in “a healthy environment.”) Before he hung up, though, Mr. Zabar took a firmer stance. “I’m going to address these concerns,” he said. Then he promised, “For reasons other than organic, we’re going to be lining all the beds in plastic for our winter production.”