Farmers Markets: Is the food safe to eat?

It's peak summer, and across 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 reports -- questions arise about whether food-safety oversight has kept pace.

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The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration set federal guidelines, with states holding most responsibility for food safety. But jurisdiction over farmers markets -- and decisions about how frequently to inspect them, if at all -- falls to a dizzying welter of state or local health or agriculture departments.

Overall, there are fewer controls over foods sold at farmers markets than in supermarkets. And a bucolic venue doesn't diminish the risk that pathogens might lurk in those farm-fresh eggs, leafy greens and homemade pickles.

In a spot check of 29 markets scattered among 10 states and the District of Columbia, reporters for E.W. Scripps Co. found that nearly two thirds (18) had not been inspected within a year. And a third (10) lacked hand-washing facilities, a sanitation basic. (The states included Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington.)

While Scripps reporters observed mostly well-run markets in which vendors followed food-safety protocols -- wearing gloves when handling items other than fresh produce, or offering samples with toothpicks -- they noted some questionable practices.

At the Anderson Township (Ohio) Farmers Market near Cincinnati, a vendor stored containers of cream-based pasta sauce in an iceless cooler. A health inspector, accompanied by a reporter, forbade the sauce's sale when it exceeded the 41-degree limit by seven degrees.

At the Fort Pierce Farmers Market on Florida's Treasure Coast, a poultry farmer sold fresh eggs labeled as pet food. Linda Hart, owner of Crazy Hart Ranch, later acknowledged doing so to get around a more costly, cumbersome process for washing, rinsing and sanitizing eggs than the one she uses.

"I have a feed license to sell pet food, and that's what I sell eggs under," Hart said. The practice is "all over the state. … Word has spread through farmers: Do this and they'll leave you alone."

Experts warn that farmers markets' wholesome image can create a false sense of security.

"We hear often that the food you get at the farmers market is so safe and better for you ... because you're looking into the eyes of the person who grew it or made it," said Vance Bybee, a food-safety expert with Oregon's department of agriculture.

He's learned that's no guarantee.

Last summer, strawberries sold at farmers markets and roadside stands in northwest Oregon were contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, killing one woman and sickening 16 other people. Investigators traced the outbreak to deer feces at Jaquith Strawberry Farm in Newberg, Oregon. Though the state requires such vendors to sell only foods they've produced, "we learned that some of those strawberries were purchased and resold four times before they made it to the actual consumer," Bybee said.

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 underreported, 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. Draft regulations are expected later this summer.

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. Some states' laws are broader. Wisconsin's so-called "pickle bill" lets home canners sell pickles, salsa and other acidified foods direct to customers. Such foods pose a threat if improperly prepared; they must be labeled as "made in a private home not subject to licensing or inspection," the law says. Many states require similar labeling, as well as training in safe food handling.

Those measures aren't enough for skeptics like David Plunkett, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog organization in Washington, D.C.

"The idea is if you're a cottage producer, you produce very little food, so very few people are going to get sick. I'm not sure that's how you want your safety system to operate," Plunkett said. He repeated, with relish, what someone told him: "This is what's known as faith-based food safety."

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