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Farmers Markets Thrive While Concerns Grow

Against the backdrop of San Francisco’s skyline, investment banker Ali Dagli strolled through rows of fresh-picked produce, chatting with farmers as he carefully packed his purchases into a canvas bag slung casually over his shoulder.


“It’s great to see these guys who are passionate about the food that they bring here,” said Dagli while shopping at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on a recent Saturday morning. “If I go to Safeway, it has no heart. There is heart here at the farmers market.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way. Dagli is part of a fast-growing consumer trend: Demand for local food is expected to reach $7 billion by 2012, nearly doubling since 2002, according to the Agriculture Department. And with more than 6,000 farmers markets currently operating in the United States — a 40 percent jump in the past five years — they are an easy place for consumers to go to get their fresh-food fix.

But the rise in popularity is accompanied by a parallel rise in concerns about how best to keep these local consumers safe from the same pathogens responsible for nationwide outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli in commercially produced foods.

Although the fare sold at farmers markets often is perceived as more wholesome than what’s available on grocery shelves, there is no evidence that it is less prone to cause foodborne illness — and it generally receives less federal and local oversight.

While few pathogen outbreaks have been linked to farmers markets, most sources of foodborne illness are never identified, and small outbreaks often go unreported. For instance, for every confirmed case of salmonellosis, at least 29 cases go unreported, according to federal estimates.

Congress exempted small farms from the more rigorous safety requirements of the new Food Safety Modernization Act. The exemption applies to farms that gross under $500,000 annually and sell the majority of their products directly to consumers, restaurants or stores in their state or within 275 miles of the farm.

State and local governments have jurisdiction over farmers markets. But while health inspectors may visit once or twice a season, most markets are left to set their own rules. Only 14 percent of market managers reported state government regulation of market rules and bylaws, according to the 2006 USDA National Farmers Market Manager Survey. Just 20 percent reported city, county or municipal government involvement.

That leaves whether and how to oversee food safety largely to the markets’ managers and vendor-operated boards of directors.

Each farmers market organization develops its own policies and means of enforcement, according to Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes farmers markets, representing more than 3,500 markets. Prospective vendors may be required to submit an application, present proof of insurance and any relevant licenses, and be inspected, she added.

The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market features 80 local farms and attracts some 25,000 shoppers over the three days each week that it is open. The variety of produce on display is rivaled only by the variety of people who shop there: home cooks, gourmet chefs, health nuts, tourists and food devotees known as locavores.

Because space is limited and very popular with vendors, the market has exceptionally tough requirements. Farmers wishing to join must complete an application up to 17 pages long, be screened for several months and undergo an on-site examination by market managers regarding the farm’s food safety and sustainability practices concerning soil, crops, water, pests, waste, harvest, storage, energy, labor and sales.

Managers who conduct these inspections have a general understanding of agriculture and handling guidelines for food safety from USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, but they are not specifically trained, said Dave Stockdale, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which has operated the market since 1999.

California requires all farmers markets to be certified through the local county health department’s agriculture commissioner. Market managers must make sure that vendors are following state health codes and farmers are selling only food they grew themselves.

“Food safety is a concern,” Stockdale said. “In the state of California, there are no specific on-farm food safety certifications that people must possess. That’s one of the reasons we ask so many questions and have such a long application, because it helps us understand what to look for when we go visit a site.”

Elsewhere, vendor selection is not always as strict.

In Arizona, for example, the Phoenix Public Market has a one-page application for prospective sellers wanting to join the 120 vendors currently active in the semi-weekly open-air market and accompanying grocery store, which are operated by Community Food Connections.

“Somebody from here tries to get out and visit the different growers,” said Cindy Gentry, the nonprofit’s founder and executive director, but sometimes farms aren’t inspected until after they start selling at the market.

When conducting farm visits, Gentry looks for production quantity to match growing capabilities, and also analyzes worker sanitation, farming methods, processing and distribution.

“It’s been a learning curve for me,” she said, adding that she has received some on-the-job training from farmers who sell at the market regarding proper agricultural and handling practices used to ensure food safety.

Gentry said small farms should not be held to the same government standards as commercial farms due to their limited resources and the greater level of transparency in direct sales between farmer and consumer.

However, Richard Molinar, small farm program adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno, thinks the local food movement will put pressure on local farms to develop food safety plans.

“Certainly more people are wanting to buy fresh and buy local; that doesn’t mean that they’re not concerned about food safety,” said Molinar, who helps small farmers develop scaled-down food safety manuals. “When you go to swap meets or farmers markets, I think at some point consumers are going to want to see or know if those farmers have some kind of policy in place.”

Elizabeth Armstrong has already reached that point. The Indianapolis mother two represents an exceptionally motivated local food devotee.

In 2006, her then-2-year-old daughter nearly died of kidney failure after eating commercially produced spinach contaminated with E. coli. As a result, Armstrong refuses to buy grocery store produce, instead serving her family vegetables from their own garden and fruits bought at farmers markets just minutes from their home.

“What’s important for us, as a consumer, is just to have the transparency that the farmer will tell us how he is producing his food and what steps he’s taking to ensure that it’s safe,” she said. “Then it’s our choice.”


Stephanie Snyder wrote this story while a Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow from Arizona State.

News21 is part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education

© Food Safety News
  • Steve

    Here’s a completely unsubstantiated blanket statement linking unreported outbreaks to Farmers Markets:
    “While few pathogen outbreaks have been linked to farmers markets, most sources of foodborne illness are never identified, and small outbreaks often go unreported. For instance, for every confirmed case of salmonellosis, at least 29 cases go unreported, according to federal estimates.”
    Actually, local contamination clusters requiring hospitalization DO get reported very quickly in their localities and then statewide. It’s the sporadic illnesses spread all around the country via the centralized/industrialized food system that are difficult to identify — let alone trace.
    Further, the statement… “Congress exempted small farms from the more rigorous safety requirements of the new Food Safety Modernization Act.” is also a misstatement.
    Recognizing that one-size-DOESN’T-fit-all, the FSMA created scale-and risk-appropriate ALTERNATIVE oversight parameters, not the so-called “exemptions” industry likes to use to disparage small farm oversight.
    That said, with the added $$$ boost in Appropriations for FDA to implement FSMA (reported today in FSN) one can only hope the parameters of FSMA’s Stabenow Amendment — training small-scale farmers in food safety production practices — will actually receive adequate funding. At this point grassroots farming organizations around the country are bearing the costly brunt of filling the GAPS with trusted, farm-appropriate training programs. Helping to fund these programs can do more to promote food safety in the small farm sector than all the rules and regs combined…

  • bad experience

    I bought honey and other stuff at a farmers market outside of New York City and our entire family got sick as hell. Who is supposed to be watching out for our health at these places? There didn’t seem to be any inspectors around. It was just a free for all and my family suffered for it. When I went bsck to tell the farmer she got angry and used bad language. She said I didn’t buy food from her and I couldn’t prove it. I’ve taken food back to Hannaford’s before and they politely check my receipt and refund my money without cursing at me.

    • Becca

      Did you wash your food? Many small farmers do think that, at some point, consumers are responsible too. There are definitely farm markets where farmers are selling produce that they didn’t grow – FDA regulations and the FSMA will not fix this.

  • Richard Moyer

    In response to this:
    “Although the fare sold at farmers markets often is perceived as more wholesome than what’s available on grocery shelves, there is no evidence that it is less prone to cause foodborne illness — and it generally receives less federal and local oversight.”
    We raise and sell beef at a local farmers market. Just yesterday, three customers asked specific, pointed questions about how our beef is produced, including whether we feed antibiotics and other production practices. They look me in the eye when asking their questions and listening to my answers. Their concerns are being voiced, and my production practices need to reflect these concerns if I want to earn and keep their business.
    I tell such customers that the ground beef we offer comes from one animal at a time. Processed at a local facility where I can observe the USDA inspector actually inspecting all surfaces (including inside saws and grinders) before each single animal is processed. This in contrast to the mix of 500 or so animals I’ve read that go into ground beef usually available in the chain grocery.
    When customers ask about feed, I tell them all the grass and hay this steer ate were raised on our farm. And no antibiotics in their diet, over a lifetime.
    Hence my customers are taking control of their food choices, educating themselves and asking direct questions.
    So my business experience is that consumers are making educated choices to reduce their risk of foodborne illness.
    This is appropriate, in light of ample evidence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens being transferred from meat animals to humans. See this link and studies therein on the science behind this, and the summary statements of concern from a range of professional bodies:

  • Richard

    Apologies for a second brief comment, including a specific link in response to to “Although the fare sold at farmers markets often is perceived as more wholesome than what’s available on grocery shelves, there is no evidence that it is less prone to cause foodborne illness –”
    See this readable explanation (The Spread of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria from Chickens to Farmers) of what happened when tetracycline was added to chicken feed.
    Later, when the antibiotic removed from feed, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria also greatly decreased in the humans handling them.
    As both a parent and a small-scale poultry producer, I prefer antibiotics preserved for use when we really need them, not misused as a feed supplement. And I prefer selling such meat to my farmers market customers. Back to my turkey orders for Thanksgiving…

  • Steve

    WHAT??? Money designated by statute for food safety farmer training??? — GONE.
    Not mentioned in the FDA funding article in today’s FSN that I mentioned in comments above is that in USDA’s REE NIFA budget the National Integrated Food Safety Initiative is completely zeroed out.
    This was established as a more than $10 million account — and was to be the basis for the farmer food safety training program in the FSMA known as the Stabenow provision.
    This leaves grassroots groups still holding the bag full of unfunded mandates — it’s well past time for food safety entities to put their money where their mouth is…
    And this is crazy/unjustified — an ounce of (farmer training) prevention is worth a ton of (regulatory, pay to play) “cure” any day.

  • county health inspector

    In my jurisdiction, we have a small farmer who jars his own tomato sauce. He supplements his own tomatoes with canned tomatoes, if need be. The State Health Dept. told me to embargo the product if there was no HACCP plan. The farmer and an employee quickly put together a very short plan. We are not qualified to review HACCP plans, nor are we familiar with special processing requirements, but in my opinion, the plan is not complete. The farmer says that he tells his customers to use the sauce within a few days, although the labeling does not state this. Some of our farmers markets sell fresh produce that was not grown on their farms. It seems very misleading to me. The oversight of farmers markets at the local level may not be what you’d expect.