Farmers’ Market Friendly Laws Can Be Trumped By Health Boards

Farmers’ Market Friendly Laws Can Be Trumped By Health Boards

Farmers Market in Ontario Canada, free image story image

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Maryland-based Capital Gazette published an article recently about how the health department did a sweep of local farmers’ markets and fined several of the farmers for violating administrative rules. Since most farmers thought they were covered by cottage, they were quite upset about the sweep. Mmany growers thought they were in compliance with the laws, but were not.

That had us here at American Farm Marketer curious. With serious food-borne disease outbreaks making headlines at a fairly steady rate, although not at farmers markets, the scenario described in the article seems like it would be repeated all over the country.

So we reached out to Rutger’s Extension Agent Rick Van Vranken to ask a few questions. He, in turn, brought in another Rutgers Extension Agent, Meredith Melendez.

Q. What tips would you give those selling at farmers markets about how they can sail through these types of surprise inspections?

Van Vranken: It’s interesting though that the article you sent is not the focus of the FSMA rules, but rather falls under the myriad of local health dept regulations, which may or may not be friendly or supportive of community farmers markets. The other issue mentioned is that each state may or may not have a law that either exempts or somehow reduces liability and compliance with local health dept regulations for cottage industry food processors (i.e. the homemade jam and jelly, or home baked goods vendors). Seems to me we just passed a new law allowing for it here in New Jersy a couple of years ago, or maybe I had heard about one being passed in a neighboring state. In either case, each state law differs somewhat, and each county or state health department may have different sets of rules and/or no exemption from their rules for community market vendors.

The good news is that local and state health department regulations tend to cover only prepared foods, not fresh. So, most grower vendors won’t be covered by these regulations, unless (there are always exceptions to watch for!) they are offering pre-cut produce (think sliced Calabaza in a Hispanic community), or are offering cut pieces of produce for tasting (taste the melons to know how sweet they are!).

So, my quick thoughts on the matter are that it’s critical for vendors to know for themselves, or at the very least to know that the market manager knows, the state and local health department, as well as weights and measures, which will get the fresh folks, too, though I’m not sure about the “label font” regulations mentioned in the article, and business licensing regulations for each market where they plan to sell. It may differ from one community to the next, depending how much they want a farmers market. Some may require individual mercantile licenses while others offer an umbrella license for the market. Health inspection certs will likely be for individual vendors, unless there’s a blanket exemption, and the list goes on.

Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is rarely a way to avoid these regulations, and getting defensive or antagonistic about it won’t get you anywhere with the inspectors. So if farmers and crafters want to sail through surprise inspections, they need to know, understand and be in compliance with the local regulations before they set up at the market.

Melendez: Rick did a great job of covering the topic. Fresh uncut produce has not been a point of concern for the heath inspectors, that I am aware of, in New Jersey.

As you know, farmers market sales are not immune to food safety risks. I hand out information during food safety workshop specific to New Jersey regulations on farmers market sales. We are fortunate enough to have that in a chart format, and I feel it helps the farmer to have the regulations with them should an inspector ask them questions. This has been particularly helpful for honey producers. I am always very happy when I see a hand washing station (microbially safe water, soap, and paper towels) provided at the market, and I would be even happier if a hand washing station was each stall. A simple 5-gallon container with a spigot will work, and the whole set-up can cost less than $20. I also encourage producers to educate their customer on proper produce handling after purchase, such as being mindful of how their reusable shopping bags have been used, and to no allow co-mingling of meats and eggs and produce.

Farmers market vendors should also encourage customers to wash their fresh produce under cool, running water for at least 20 seconds prior to use.

The Farmers Market Federation has a great handout that we give to New Jersey growers to help educate their customers on produce food safety.

 

Q. Are these health and commerce oriented rules inherently conflicting interests? When state level laws meet municipal laws, state wins. Is that in play here?

Van Vranken: Conflicting, yes. Health Departments almost always think safety rules should apply uniformly for everyone (from FDA on down). They don’t see any benefits to cottage industries, farm markets, direct marketers, etc. And it doesn’t have to even be the state encouraging, while the municipal health dept resists. We’re seeing more communities with green committees (of volunteers, activists and municipal workers) and/or planning departments (or consultants and regional NGOs) seeking to start community farmers’ markets (and food hubs). That’s because they’re promoted from USDA on down as the most wonderful economic development tool that also save local farms, get fresh produce into areas that might not otherwise have access, etc. But that’s without talking to other municipal entities that might have concerns and input, like health, weights and measures, zoning, and licensing.

Does state rule always win? Depends on whether there’s an allowance for a municipal reg to be more stringent, but not less, which might vary state by state too.

 

Melendez: New Jersey has been progressive in its outreach to fresh produce growers regarding food safety, with on-farm food safety outreach beginning in 1999 due to buyer required third party audits. The New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture developed the Food Safety Task force which meets to discuss industry wide issues specific to food safety. This group consists of the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health, Extension, Farm Bureau and industry associations (including grocery) representatives. We are fortunate to communicate with many of the key individuals who play a roll in food safety statewide, but we are lacking this on the municipal level. It is needed!