Farmers markets take food safety and traceability to heart

      Posted On: August 17, 2011

For Immediate Release
Contact : Stacy Miller

August 17, 2011

On August 8th, news emerged of an outbreak of E. Coli 0157:H7 traced to Oregon strawberries, sickening 15 in a five-county area. The Oregon Department of Health responded rapidly, tracing the berries to Jaquith Farm, from which they were purchased and resold at retail outlets, farm stands, and a handful of farmers markets in the region. Today, Oregon health officials confirmed that six of the samples taken from the farm’s fields match the DNA markers of the strain in the outbreak, and finalized a list of the 57 locations where they believe berries these berries were purchased by consumers between July 10th and 29th.

The fact that the outbreak was localized to a small geographic area is of limited solace to the families affected, in particular the 85-year old woman who died from kidney complications stemming from her illness.

The Oregon Farmers’ Markets Association (OFMA) quickly issued a press release about the incident, in which OFMA President Rebecca Landis said “No one should have to worry about the safety of our food. Knowing exactly where your food comes from is a core value of farmers’ markets, and we are constantly striving to create the highest level of transparency and traceability.”

Each farmers market organization sets its own policies, geographic boundaries, and methods of enforcing rules that ensure their integrity. Market managers, in many cases, require proof of insurance and copies of all relevant permits and licenses from the state and county agencies that have jurisdiction over any sanitation protocol. To be eligible to sell in a farmers market, a farmer submits an application which often includes product lists, maps of their fields, and directions to the farm. An increasing number of farmers markets, even when managed largely by community volunteers, conduct on-farm inspections.

The Farmers Market Coalition (FMC), a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening farmers markets for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and communities, says that a full 91% of their current member markets have formal written policies about what products can be sold and by whom. Farmers market managers throughout the country regularly share good risk management practices through the FMC listserv, and the organization incorporates training on food safety and market policies in its workshops, webinars, and on-line resources. According to the most recent data from USDA’s 2006 Farmers Market Manager Survey, 63.4% of farmers markets are strictly producer-only, meaning that they only allow farms to sell products that they have grown or produced themselves. That trend is rising, too.

The Lake Oswego Farmers’ Market, one of the markets in the Portland area approving limited sale of Jaquith Farm strawberries earlier this summer, allows farmers to supplement their own products with other locally grown product as long as the vendor grows at least 75% by value of the overall product that they offer for sale throughout the season. According to Market Manager Maddie Ovenell, the Market is “not an outlet for resale of wholesale produce – all products must be grown, produced, or collected by the vendor in Oregon or Washington. Vendors are also responsible for meeting health requirements and obtaining any permits and licenses applicable to their products.”
The Market clearly states in its producer application (11 pages) that for any products grown by other local farms and used to supplement farmer product-lines, “Vendors are required to display a sign identifying the farm or business by name and the location the farm or business including the name and location of the farm or business that has supplied the vendor with supplemental product, if any.”

Proactive policies, though surely useful to public health authorities in the recent outbreak, are not the only mechanisms in place at farmers markets. The new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) specifically requires farms qualifying for Tester-Hagan Amendment provisions to notify consumers through labels that “prominently and conspicuously” provide at the point of purchase the “name and business address of the facility where the food was manufactured or processed” (PUBLIC LAW 111–353—JAN. 4, 2011 124 STAT. 3903). This language was specifically supported by proponents of the Tester-Hagan Amendment, including the Farmers Market Coalition, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and at least 70 other organizations nationwide representing small family farms as well as the consumers that support them.

FMC is confident that farmers markets will continue to maintain high standards for proper food handling, just as they will continue to set the standard for facilitating direct communication between farmers and those who buy their products. The scale of operations qualifying under small-farm provisions like those in the Tester-Hagan Amendment allows for a transparent feedback loop between shopper and farmer, both of whom bear responsibility for the safety of food. Such short supply chains have an inherent public health value, in addition to helping preserve produce freshness and nutritional quality.

While it’s unlikely, based on sales levels and marketing methods, that the farm at which this outbreak occurred would be eligible for Tester-Hagan regulation, this incident is a case in point why training and education are paramount for small and mid-scale producers. “It’s also a wake-up call for farmers market organizations to revisit product policies, verify producers’ compliance with state and local food handling guidelines, and ensure systems are in place to maintain absolute transparency between producer and consumer,” says Stacy Miller, Executive Director of the Farmers Market Coalition. “Customers deserve to know exactly what they are buying, and farmers markets are responsible for earning and maintaining consumer trust in the direct relationships with local farmers.”

The Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to strengthening farmers markets for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and communities. Representing more than 3,500 farmers markets throughout the United States, FMC grows healthy farmers markets through education, networking, and advocacy.
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