For farmers who sell fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, food safety will be business as usual, despite the federal Food and Drug Administration’s new proposed rules governing produce.
“Business as usual,” because most market farmers are exempt from the new rules, just as they’re exempt from the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2010.
Under the act, farms are exempt if they average less than $500,000 in food sales annually (for the last 3 years) and sell most of their food directly to consumers, restaurants and stores within the state or 275 miles or less from the farm.
However, states do regulate items such as milk, cheese, meats and eggs, among others.
Praised as the most sweeping reform of the nation’s food safety laws in more than 70 years, the act takes aim at preventing food from becoming contaminated with pathogens that can sicken or kill people instead of responding to foodborne outbreaks after they’ve happened.
According to the FDA, the two proposed rules for produce will play a role in implementing the act.
Concerns about fresh produce
In comments about fresh produce, FDA describes this category as possessing a special food safety risk because, when eaten raw, it doesn’t go through a “kill step” such as being subjected to high enough temperatures to kill harmful pathogens.
Fresh produce is also of special concern, says the agency, because people are eating increasing amounts of it, in part because public health agencies are recommending fruits and vegetables for their nutritional benefit.
In addition, because produce is generally grown outdoors, it can be contaminated in various ways – by polluted irrigation water, fecal droppings from wild life and livestock and contact with the soil.
According to a recently released report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, produce such as fruits and vegetables accounted for 46 percent of the 4,589 foodborne illness outbreaks linked to a specific commodity between 1998 and 2008. At the top of the list were leafy greens, which were responsible for the most illnesses, many of which were caused by noroviruses, the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis — an infection of the stomach and intestines — in the United States.
FDA’s analysis of available foodborne illness outbreak data documents 131 outbreaks associated with contaminated produce between 1996 and 2010 that caused more than 14,000 illnesses and 34 deaths. These foodborne illness outbreaks were caused mainly by biological hazards such as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Shigella, Hepatitis A and Cyclospora.
FDA’s proposed rules for produce cover almonds, apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cherries, citrus (such as clementine, grapefruit, lemons, limes, mandarin, oranges, tangerines), cucumbers, garlic, grapes, green beans, guava, herbs (such as basil, chives, cilantro, mint, oregano, and parsley), honeydew, kiwifruit, lettuce, mangos, mushrooms, nectarine, onions, papaya, passion fruit, peaches, pears, peas, peppers (such as bell and hot), pineapple, plums, radish, raspberries, scallions, snow peas, spinach, sprouts (such as alfalfa and mung bean), strawberries, summer squash (such as patty pan, yellow and zucchini), tomatoes, walnuts, watercress and watermelon.
Of special interest to farmers is the second produce rule, which proposes enforceable safety standards for the production and harvesting of produce on farms. An FDA press release about the rules says they were developed using science- and risk-based standards.
Even so, small-scale farmers who meet the exemption qualifications in the act won’t be bound by any of the rules.
Who’s minding the shop?
For the most part, states rely on county health departments to check out food safety at farmers markets. But that usually comes down to making sure that prepared foods such as soups and pizza are at the correct temperatures, that eggs and milk are being sold according to state regulations, that samples are cut and handled according to basic sanitation principles and that farmers and employees handling food have access to proper handwashing setups.
In California, when the state’s Agriculture and Food Department certifies the its approximately 700 farmers markets and approximately 2,200 producers who sell at the markets, the department doesn’t get involved in food safety issues. Instead, said department spokesman Jay Van Rein, the emphasis is on making sure the market farmers are selling only what they’re actually growing — not food they’ve bought from other sources.
When it comes to food safety, Van Rein said that’s up to the local health department offices.
Lisa O’Malley of the San Francisco Department of Health said the department follows the state’s Retail Food Code. At certified farmers markets, certain requirements of the code must be met. For example, food must be stored at least 6 inches off the floor or ground, no live animals (exceptions for guide and service animals), birds or fowl can be kept or allowed within 20 feet of any area where food is stored or held for sale and food samples must be distributed in a “sanitary manner.”
Even so, Jerry Lami, executive director of the West Coast Farmers Market Association, which operates five farmers markets in northern California, and Jan Taylor, director of the association’s market operations, told Food Safey News that fresh produce sold at farmers markets is, for the most part, not governed by the state when it comes to farmers’ food safety practices.
In Indiana, food safety boils down to faith on the part of the consumers that the farmers they’re buying from at farmers markets are following good food safety practices, said A. Scott Gilliam, Director of Food Protection at the state’s department of health, in an e-mail to Food Safety News.
And while his program offers workshops on food safety and continues to encourage all fruit and vegetable farmers, no matter what size their farm is, to use good agricultural practices (known as GAPs) and third-party certification, he said that so far “it has been only guidance.”
Retailers, meanwhile, have been moving toward requiring the farmers they buy from to follow good agricultural practices. But Gilliam said that “many farmers markets have not evolved to that level.”
He also pointed out that wholesalers can exert “much influence” on food safety practices. An example of that influence, he said, is that watermelon and cantaloupe growers in Indiana “are poised to stand together” in implementing good agricultural practices and using third-party certification — and plan to put pressure on growers who do not.
Pointing out that the state’s melon growers “lost a lot of market share and untold amounts of money” last summer because of the multi-state outbreak caused by Salmonella-infected cantaloupes from a farm in Indiana, Gilliam said that sort of fiasco affects all farmers of a crop, no matter how big or small they are.
In Washington state, Jill Trohimovich, an environmental health specialist with the King County/Seattle Public Health Department and liaison between the department and farmers markets, pretty much echoed what officials in other states said about fresh produce inspections at farmers markets: it’s not really part of the territory.
“We do just a quick walk-by — take a quick peek at exempt foods,” she said.
Kirk Robinson, Assistant Director of Food Safety and Customer Services at the state’s agriculture department, said that even though the department has very little oversight of fresh produce sold at farmers markets, it does offer workshops on food safety.
“It’s really important,” he said, referring to food safety. “It’s a concern for everyone.”
Joel Wachs, a past president of the Washington State Farmers Market Association and a former president of the Mercer Island Farmers Market, would agree. He said that during the Association’s recent annual conference, the session about food safety drew a packed room, with people sitting on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs for everyone.
“There’s a huge level of awareness about food safety,” he said. “Farmers don’t deny that this an important issue — if not the most important issue — for them.”
But he also said that it can be difficult for small-scale farmers to deal with all of the complexity that comes with food safety rules and to maintain the necessary paperwork, and can be difficult for the agencies involved as well. A large farm can hire people to put a plan in place and maintain it, he said, but small farms don’t have the resources for it.
That’s why he believes that finding a balance between food safety regulations and small farms to allow a degree of flexibility in how small-scale farmers can achieve them is so important.
On the legal front
Food safety attorney Bill Marler (publisher of Food Safety News) reminds small-scale growers that, exemption or no exemption under the Food Safety Modernization Act, they can still be sued if their food is contaminated and gets people sick or kills them.
“I grew up on a small farm,” he said. “I know the pride my father had in what he produced. But small farmers are not exempt from today’s bacteria and viruses. To think they are immune because they are not ‘big Ag’ is living in a world that does not exist. One child with HUS caused by E. coli can cost millions of dollars. Those are dollars ‘small Ag’ does not have.”
FDA is seeking comments on the proposed produce rules through May here.
Farmers markets update
According to information from the USDA, farmers markets are a significant source of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats and other items sold directly from the producer or farmer to U.S. consumers. USDA data from August 2012 show that across much of the United States the number of farmers markets continues to grow. Go here for information on how the penetration of farmers markets varies geographically and a map showing the percent of change of farmers markets per capita between 2009 and 2012.© Food Safety News