Farmers markets may be exempt from new food safety rules
By Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondent February 24, 2013 5:34PM
James Cannon looks over a batch of spring mix while harvesting produce at Green Farms A&M in Valparaiso Friday Feb. 22, 2013. Cannon is chief of horticulture at the state-of-the-art, aquaponic produce farm. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 25, 2013 12:18PM
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released two new proposed food safety rules as it looks to prevent the foodborne illnesses that it says results in approximately 3,000 deaths and 130,000 hospitalizations each year.
However, the new rules would only target large farms and food producers, meaning produce purchased at local farmer’s markets and grown at local farms may be exempt.
The proposed regulations, which would fall under the Food Safety Modernization Act signed by President Barack Obama two years ago, would require food manufacturers to have a formal plan in place to prevent contamination of human food and would create enforceable standards for growing and harvesting produce.
Those standards would involve agricultural water, biological soil amendments, health and hygiene, domesticated and wild animals and equipment, tools and buildings, which the FDA believes contribute to the bacteria that causes food contamination.
Smaller, exempt farms would still be responsible for the safety of their produce, the FDA stated.
Kate Flannery, co-owner of Green Farms Agronomics & Mycology in Valparaiso, said the vertical indoor farm wouldn’t fall under the new rules, but then the rules wouldn’t apply to her business anyway.
“This is a controlled environment. It’s safer. There are no birds flying overhead leaving droppings, there are no contaminants. These are elements that could create health issues,” she said of the farm, which produces different varieties of lettuce, microgreens and herbs, some of which is sold to local restaurants.
Flannery said Green Farms consistently participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Good Agricultural Practices voluntary audit program. According to the USDA, the audits verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled and stored in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.
At local farmers markets, Porter and Lake County Health Departments regularly do inspections for prepared foods, but none for fresh produce sold there, spokespersons said.
“As long as it’s not cooked and sampled, we don’t do anything with it. I don’t know of any agency that inspects fresh produce,” said Juanita Goepcheus, food service coordinator for Porter County Health Department.
She said the department makes sure vendors preparing food on site are following the food code, making sure the foods are stored at the right temperature and hands and utensils are properly washed.
A Lake County Health Department employee said whole, uncut produce doesn’t have to be inspected because consumers generally wash and cook it anyway.
Allison Baughman, marketing manager for Duneland Chamber of Commerce and manager of Chesterton’s European Market, said she doesn’t inspect the farms where produce sold at the market is grown. All that is required is the farmer’s state tax ID number.
Baughman, like Raeann Trakas, who is in charge of Hobart’s Summer Market on the Lake, relies on the county health departments to inspect vendors.
“We don’t do any inspections ourselves, but we make sure the vendors dot all the I’s and cross the t’s,” Baughman said.
Baughman said she hasn’t heard any complaints of someone becoming ill from food purchased at the market.
Trakas said food preparers need to have a permit from the county, but nothing is required of farmers selling fresh produce.
“We’ve never had a problem and we’re going on our fourth year,” Trakas said.