Farmers markets exempt from new food safety rules

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released two new food safety rules this month under the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act that was signed into law two years ago to prevent foodborne illness.

The proposed rules would require food manufacturers to have a formal plan to prevent contamination and create enforceable standards for growing and harvesting produce.

But not all businesses or farms will be subject to such policies that look to reduce the approximately 3,000 annual deaths and 130,000 hospitalizations from foodborne illness, according to the FDA.

Food producers and farms are exempt from the law if they average less than $500,000 in annual sales and sell most of their food directly to consumers or restaurants and shops within the state or 275 miles.

Those exemption comes into play at farmers markets.

For instance, shopping at the 12 certified farmers markets in Ventura County, Calif., has become the most mainstream way for consumers to buy fresh food directly from growers -- but there is little to no government regulation on the growing and harvesting practices for those products.

The county agricultural department has to certify a farm before it can sell fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts or honey at a certified farmers market, which is sanctioned by both the agricultural and environmental health departments.

While the farm certification process includes two annual site inspections by an agricultural department employee, the inspector only needs to verify the grower is actually producing each product they plan to sell at the market, Ventura County Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Kerry DuFrain said.

"What we're certifying has nothing to do with the safety of the producer," she said.

There are 134 certified producers in Ventura County and the only benefit of the certification is to sell at certified farmers markets, which also allow certified producers from other counties in the state, DuFrain said. There are no limitations on the size of an operation or annual revenue to qualify as a certified producer, she added.

Beyond a farm's designation as a certified producer, it's up to the farmers market manager to decide whether to inspect a farm's growing practices or to require additional food safety measures.

Not all farmers markets operate the same way.

Coastal Pacific, a nonprofit overseeing the certified farmers markets in downtown Oxnard, Channel Islands and Simi Valley, Calif., does not visit the farms that sell at the markets, said Tasha Shallenberger, a market manager working primarily at the Simi Valley location.

Certified farmers markets are inspected at least once every year by both the agricultural and environmental health departments. Agricultural department inspectors ensure farmers are only selling the products listed on their certified producer application, while health inspectors look for proper food handling and food storing practices.

From January to September last year, Ventura County had 111 complaints of foodborne illness and 277 additional confirmed cases of organisms that could be caused by food contamination, the Ventura County Environmental Health Division reported. But a spokeswoman couldn't recall any cases originating from local farmers markets.

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