It's peak summer, and across Indiana and the nation farmers markets sprout in parking lots, bringing together a bounty of worthy interests under many small tents -- support for local agriculture, improved nutrition and food access and community-building in a festive environment.
Yet as the number of farmers markets has surged -- to 7,175 last year, up from 4,385 five years earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported -- questions arise about whether food-safety oversight has kept pace.
The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration set federal guidelines, with states holding most responsibility for food safety.
In Indiana, the rules for farmers markets that are set by the Indiana State Department of Health are essentially the same as those governing regular retail establishments.
But it's up to each of the 92 counties to decide how and how often to enforce the rules, RTV6's Chris Proffitt reported.
What To Look For At The Farmers Market
"You've got to rely on the board of health to do their job and hope that the vendors follow through," said Robert Engleking, who sells beef grown on his Hancock County farm at markets. "There are guidelines we follow, and hopefully they do."
In Johnson County, health inspector Chris Menze told RTV6 that the county doesn't typically inspect farmers markets, like the popular gathering in Greenwood.
"We have a limited number of full-time inspectors and we just haven't had the manpower to oversee most of these markets," he said.
But other counties do check the markets. Inspection reports from Hendricks County show a handful of market vendors were cited for mostly minor violations.
In Marion County, of the 255 inspections in May and June this year, there were 66 violations, including critical issues including employees not washing their hands and cold foods not held at proper temperatures.
A new study from Purdue University found those problems are extremely common.
In 900 transactions, researchers saw only two attempts at hand-washing, concluding that "the lack of compliance with hand-washing
may pose a relatively high risk of foodborne illnesses."
Purdue experts also noted that conditions at farmers markets pose unique food safety risks since products are sold outdoors where they're exposed to dirt, insects and other potential contaminants.
Every year, foodborne illness sickens one in six Americans, sends 128,000 to the hospital and kills 3,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Few outbreaks are officially linked to farmers markets, but foodborne illness tends to be under-reported, especially when it's mild and when the food isn't consumed in one place at one time, said Michael B. Batz, head of food-safety programs at the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute and co-author of the 2011 report, "Keeping America's Food Supply Safe."
Reducing risk is the stated goal of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, which emphasizes prevention over reaction. It gives the federal Food and Drug Administration new power to demand commercial food-safety plans and to recall hazardous foods.
An amendment to the law exempts small farmers and producers -- the ones most likely to sell at farmers markets -- on the premise that broad federal regulations might be too expensive or inhibit certain types of farming.
The Tester Amendment -- named for Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and organic farmer -- exempts those who gross less than $500,000 a year, earn at least half their income through direct sales and sell within a 275-mile radius.
Included in that category are small-scale, home-based processors of so-called cottage foods, who use local ingredients in products such as baked goods and jams sold directly to customers at farmers markets.
Since the law's passage, at least 20 states have enacted their own "cottage food" laws. It's "the one area that states are trying to exempt from food-safety requirements, mostly to promote entrepreneurs," said Doug Farquhar, who directs the National Conference of State Legislatures' agriculture/environmental health program.
Farquhar said there's potential conflict between the new federal law and the cottage food rules of a dozen states: Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Most states have approved the home production of items that carry little risk of spoiling without refrigeration, such as preserves, candies and dried fruits.
Among farmers market managers surveyed for a 2006 USDA report, only "14 percent reported state-government enforcement of food-safety requirements and just 20 percent reported city, county or municipal involvement," Governing magazine noted in March 2011. Results from an updated survey are expected later this year.
What To Look For & Ask At The Farmers Market
Food Safety At The Farmers Market -- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
Copyright Copyright 2012 by
All rights reserved.
This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.