United Grocers, an association of grocery stores that has everything to gain by stifling our burgeoning farmer’s market communities to help draft Farmers Market Safety Regs
In the aftermath of the E.coli spinach fiasco last year, the Oregon Department of Agriculture plans to draft new food safety regulations for farmers markets, starting with the 2008 season. However, it appears they will do this without a true public process, but more with the help of the United Grocers, an association of grocery stores that has everything to gain by stifling our burgeoning farmer’s market communities. Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, has been asking many questions about these new rules, but hasn’t been getting very clear answers.
I remain deeply troubled by the way this proposal advanced. Over the last decade we have had incident after incident of food related illnesses and deaths that are clearly linked to a large scale method of farming and distribution. The problems are regional, national and, sometimes international in scope. These are big companies, Dole, ConAgra, Wal-Mart for instance, that faithfully comply with all of the byzantine labeling and packaging rules, as well as the commercial standards for washing, handling, storage and transportation of food. They have whole departments devoted to preventing food born illnesses. I have been in these facilities. They are festooned with warnings and notices, and everyone is wearing a hair net, face mask and plastic gloves. Yet, the outbreaks continue to occur.
Across the nation, people have reacted to the outbreaks by seeking sources of local food. People grasp the notion that the most reliable food safety officers are the farmers who sit down every night and eat the food they grow. Carol and I are confident of what we grow and sell. It bears repeating, we eat what we grow, feed it to our family, staff and friends, and greet the customers who choose to return week after week to buy the same food that will be on our table that night. Yesterday morning, I was at the Hillsdale Market, this time as a customer buying eggs, cheese and mushrooms, and getting ribbed about taking a busman’s holiday. I know Amy and Chris at Square Peg eat the eggs from their chickens, and I waited in line with other customers to buy those eggs. I cannot imagine a better system of food safety. That is the beauty and essence of the farmer’s market.
It is clear that this proposal is being pushed by grocery chains, worried about the ever increasing competition. If passed, it could seriously effect the way farmer’s markets operate.
Here is a letter from Anthony Boutard, outlining many of his concerns. Those who are alarmed about these developments, should take a moment to read them.
To our friends and customers:
The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) has proposed increasing its authority over farmers’ markets by licensing farmers’ market associations as a class of “retail food establishments.” The Northwest Grocery Association (NGA) is apparently behind these efforts. Carol and I are very concerned about the proposal and believe it will be a damaging intrusion into the farmers’ markets. The status quo has served Oregonians well, and it would be a mistake to open the door to further regulation of farmers’ markets without good cause and careful analysis of various alternatives.
I am attaching four notes I have written to various people in the agency regarding this proposal, as well as notes from Lynn Youngbar and Diane Ruff. They provide greater detail to our concerns, as well as positive measures the ODA could carry out to advance the dialogue regarding our food system, and recognize the important contributions made by these nonprofit associations. Although the agency and the grocers offer several reasons to license markets, it is inescapable that the agency is looking for a new source of license fees and the grocers would like to see a brake put upon farmers’ market growth.
The contamination of bagged spinach by E. coli O157:H7 last August provided an excuse to raise the issue. The fact is, farmers’ markets have had a 20-year unblemished record of providing safe, fresh fruits and vegetables to Oregonians. Food safety starts in the field, not in the market. Farmers who grow and sell fresh fruits and vegetables directly to consumers are the best check against food borne illnesses. We eat the food we grow and sell. The large grocers represented by NGA are part of the complex system where the problem currently lies, not Oregon’s market farmers.
Farmers’ markets are not a regulatory desert. Currently, all “potentially hazardous” foods are sold by licensed vendors. These include meat, fish, processed foods, bakery goods and dairy products. The weighted system of license fees already exacts a heavier toll on small producers. Farmers who sell fresh fruits and vegetables they grow themselves are exempt from licensing. If a vendor started selling oranges from California and melons from Costa Rica, that vendor would lose the exemption and have to obtain a “retail food establishment” license. Most, if not all, farmers’ markets prohibit this sort of resale activity categorically. County health inspectors license and regulate restaurant stalls at the markets. Because farmers’ market associations act as agents for the landowner, and do not buy, sell or handle food, they have never been defined “retail food establishments.”
Please consider this matter carefully, and if you agree with the concerns Carol and I have, here are three notes that would be helpful:
Write a brief email to the current president of the Oregon Farmers’ Market Association (OFMA), Eamon Molloy, expressing your confidence in the farmers’ market system, and your support for the status quo. Molloy understands the issue well, but a brief note of support will help OFMA board and membership as it moves forward. Something to this effect: “I want to extend my congratulations to the Oregon Farmers’ Market Association for 20 years of promoting safe, nutritious, locally produced food. I urge the association to resist any attempts by the Oregon Department of Agriculture to increase licensing and regulation of the markets.” Molloy’s email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Send a letter or email to the Governor expressing your confidence in the safety of farmers’ markets, and urge him to protect them from further regulation. I think it is compelling to add a brief story about how a farmers’ market has affected your life. Write about what it is like to meet the people who grow your food, how going to the farmers’ market has changed how your family sees their food, or how it has increased your access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The one thing we have noticed at Hillsdale, even people who come to the market alone, do not remain so for long. Perfect strangers are soon comparing methods of preparing squash blossoms, a relaxed exchange which is increasingly rare in our world of mobile phones and i-pods.
The Governor has a “1,000 character” email message page at: http://governor.oregon.gov/Gov/contact_us.shtml
A longer letter may be sent to:
160 State Capitol
900 Court Street
Salem, Oregon 97301-4047
3. Send an email to Director of ODA, Katy Coba ( Katy.Coba@state.or.us ), urging her to rethink the agency’s stance regarding increased licensing and regulation of the farmers’ markets. A letter substantially the same as the Governor’s would work. Sending a copy to your state legislators would also help. Invite them to visit Oregon’s farmers’ markets, and experience the pleasure of fresh fruits and vegetables, artisan cheeses and flowers from farms across the state, and so much more.
Carol and I are not opposed to regulation in general. As certified organic growers, our farm undergoes a great deal of scrutiny requiring detailed record keeping and annual inspections. What is disturbing to us about this proposal is the influence of the Northwest Grocery Association’s lobbyist in advancing it, and the fact that it is not addressing a real problem that has been researched and analyzed. We fear this approach will lead to a cramped system that creates problems for vendors and managers, yet fails to advance the important cause of food safety.
Please feel free to forward our message to other market friends. It is important to us are that the positive attributes of farmers’ markets are stressed. Grocery stores have an important place in our lives as well. The state’s leaders need to appreciate and maintain those different roles. Carol and I are looking forward to our return to Hillsdale on the 24th of June, and hope all of our efforts will receive a positive reception from Oregon’s leaders.
Anthony and Carol Boutard
Ayers Creek Farm
Gaston, OR 97119
Aaron S. says
While I respect Anthony Boutard as a farmer, his reaction to this issue is border-line hysterical. Not that it’s not an issue meriting watching. At points in a political process it is appropriate to use diplomacy, and other points it is appropriate to storm the castle walls and ; set fire to the treasury. Mr. Boutard’s reaction to the outset of a process is creating the very hostile environment he claims to be trying to avoid.
Let’s get some things clear:
There are no NEW issues on the table. The ODA is looking into how to handle 2 areas ALREADY under its jurisdiction: food safety at farmers markets in regards to public sampling, and how to pay for the inspections that ALREADY occur!
The grocers asked ODA about setting up “markets” at their stores, to which the ODA responded they would fall under current regulations. The grocers became concerned that their funds were being used to cover the cost of inspections of the farmers market.
The grocers have a LEGITIMATE concern: moneys THEY pay for regulatory oversight of their businesses are being used for oversight of a growing competitor. As a past vendor of the market, and partner of a farm that currently vends at several markets, I can appreciate this concern. All the ODA has stated to date is its intention to create a means of funding the oversight that ALREADY EXISTS, and that Mr. Boutard claims to support.
Please – let’s not get hysterical or combative at this point. It will only serve to heighten a sense of embattlement the people asked to look into this issue already feel. Defensive rule makers/beaurocrats are far, far more fearful than those who feel a part of what is intended to be a positive-oriented process.
This IS a public process. But due to hysterics, there appears to be rules made before the process has been allowed to develop! An advisory group has been formed to look into these very legitimate concerns, and we should all seek to be involved in developing a positive process that ensures both continued food safety and strong farm-direct markets.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Hi, does anyone out there have more information on this issue? My biggest question is what exactly do these proposed rules do? I know that the e-mail mentions licensing farmers market associations as a class of “retail food establishments” but I do not know what this means to farmers and consumers. Extra Fees? More expensive equipment needed? Random inspections? what?
I tried doing a search and have come up empty handed.
Anyone want to weigh in? I’m especially interested in knowing the costs to farmers. Will this push them out of business due to prohibitive additional costs? How do folks involved in the Portland and other area Farmers markets feel about this?
Doctor Stu says
I’m NOT going to be happy if they try and close down farmer’s markets!
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Dr. Stu, I don’t believe they are trying to close down any Farmers Markets.
It’s just that they are trying to regulate them more.
My questions, which are not clear to me in the above posting, are excatly WHAT the regulations do and HOW specifically this will affect the day to day operations and bottom line of Farmers that sell at the Farmers Markets.
I can’t find any information on it.
Aaron S. says
Nobody is trying to close down any Farmers Markets!
And the reason there’s not more information is that the process has just barely begun. There’s not even an issue of regulating them MORE! All that’s been discussed is the need to recover the cost of enforcing the oversight already in place.
There are no “proposed rules” to date. Only the bare beginnings of process.
Let’s face it – we’re in a time where any governmental program requires it fund itself somehow. If we want any oversight as to food safety in any setting, there’s going to be a cost borne by somebody.
Well now. . .
My gut reaction was to pillory the evil tyrant food police for providing a solution in search of a problem. After all, what better way to attack careless conduct by mega-agribusiness and corporate food service swill mongers than to go after farmers markets. Perfect bureaucratic logic, eh? And if the grocery chains are behind it, off with their heads!
As Aaron points out (and as my independent research suggests), however, there are no proposed regs at this point. And even once any regs are proposed, the Administrative Procedures Act prescribes a detailed public process that must be undertaken before any regs can become law.
So, I’m glad farmers and all us farmers market lovers are ready to leap at the right moment, and a few well placed letters now probably wouldn’t hurt, but let’s not start hyperventilating just yet.
Doctor Stu says
I realize my comment was abit over the top, but I rather spend 5 minutes wasing off the dirt on veggies than buy the pesticide ridden crap.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
And here I was all ready to march, argula and pitchfork in hand, down to Salem. Food Fight!
Regardless, let’s keep tabs on this one.
Give me a break. Calling someone hysterical is more combative then calling for PUBLIC dialogue about licensing markets, which is what Anthony is agitating for. ODA has declined to make the discussion public because they’re worried that it would turn into a “festival of complaints”. How is that a public process?
Anytime rule makers want to get together with their invite-only “representative group” of “various interests” to make NEW rules about how a public resource should be run is asking for LEGITIMATE public feedback. And it’s disengeneous to state that this process is just for regulation that is already in place. They’re trying to set up a new licensing program to monitor food safety in markets. They’ve said that they’ve decided ADDITIONAL food safety rules were needed for farmer’s markets (because so many people have got sick from buying local produce, right?). Why spend a lot of time, energy and money drafting a bunch of rules that have to go through a “public process” before they become law when you could get public input before you write up the regs?
People have had to fight tooth and nail over stupid legislation regarding milk or beef because lobbyists get to the ear of legislators before small farmers do. So don’t get condescending and call anyone who expresses concern hysterical. Telling someone to shut up and trust their betters isn’t exactly a public dialog.
Food Dude says
This story was picked up by the news channels tonight. KGW is doing a story on it at 6:00pm
I am neither here nor there on the regulation issue, so I’ll pass on that. What I’m wondering about is the science behind claims that farmers market food is inherently safer than food grown in a higher-volume industrial process. I’ve been trying to rack my brain (I haven’t done much technical ag in the last 10 years) to come up with the reasons, but the foodborne illnesses that have been at issue of late really don’t seem to have much to do with organic vs. inorganic. If the water source used for growing is contaminated with e-coli, you’re pretty much screwed either way.
So where’s the difference when it comes to foodborne illness?
More food for thought-
One note- I believe they later traced the cause of the spinach outbreak to deer.
I can’t find where anyone claimed the local was scientifically proven to be safer. What I do know is that all of the recent cases of people becoming ill or dying were from big ag. I can’t find any cases being reported from farmers markets.
From my perspective, regulations haven’t kept me safe on the national level where there are plenty of problems, and I’m not sure how regulating local farmers is going to keep me safe from problems that currently don’t exist. It will however be an additional financial burden to them. This makes me question motives a lot. I am also suspicious of the fact that (seemingly) this was originally all being done without public knowledge.
Aaron- I respect your opinions and know you are highly knowledgeable. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the regulatory oversight that grocers are paying for in respect to competitors. I looked all over the ODA site and I can’t find what you’re referrring to. From my understanding, raw fruit and veg are currently unlicensed and not inspected.
I think, with produce at least, the risks are the same except for scale. Cows, deer, pigs or whatever peeing
upstream of your irrigation pond are pretty much beyond your control whether you have 2 acres or 2,000. But if you have 2,000 acres, and sell into a large co-op or packaging company your tainted produce might contaminate other produce and be shipped to many states.
If I eat a bad apple,(pigs in the orchard, apple picker
steps in pig shit, pig shit gets on ladder, apple pickers hand touches ladder, touches my apple, I eat the apple)
I get sick.
This is life as it has been until GIANT AGRICULTURE.
If that apple, and a lot of other apples, get juiced by
the good people at Odwalla, a whole lotta people get sick.
That’s why large scale raw juices are a thing of the past.
So, if you buy a bunch of spinach, Safeway or farmers market, your probably better off than buying a bag of pre-washed greens.
That being said, the farmers market is more fun, more local, cuts out the middleman and gives the little guy a chance.
AND, at the farmers market you might find more obscure and better varieties of produce, most commercial stuff is grown towards color, shipability
and shelf life. Your red delecious usually isn’t.
I would add that if you have 2 acres of spinach, your upstream farmer probably has 6 pigs. If you have 2,000
acres your upstream producer is likely a feed lot.
This piece (not sure what happened to link color being different…clock on “this piece”) on the food safety network mentions a couple of instances of foodborne illness traced to farmers markets. Both times the source was cheese. I’m on vacation so I haven’t had time to dig much more than that.
The scale factor crossed my mind — any problem is going to be magnified because it gets spread over a larger number of units. It also seems like a number of the problems are with processing (the peanut butter outbreak or the olive botulism case currently in the news in L.A.), not the field.
I know people are saying there’s no real problem, but is there certainty then that of the 76 million cases of foodborne illness in America every year, none of them came from food purchased from a farmers market? I just don’t see it, especially as it is so easy to misdiagnose.
Could another difference be that farmers market shoppers tend to know a little more about what they’re buying, so when the bottom half of the raspberry flats has black fuzz on it the next day they don’t eat them? :)
And a quick note on the ODA — did they do any notice of the process? I work for a different agency and we get yelled at from time to time for not doing things publicly even though it was noticed one or more times and nobody was paying attention. Not defending them, but sometimes it happens.
Anthony Boutard says
I appreciate Aaron’s compliment about us as farmers. As office manager of the Portland Farmers’ Market, he knows a lot of farmers. Good farmers have a keen sense of timing and proportionality.
In my experience, it is important to participate when state officials start the process of rule-making, not months into the process when other participants have invested time and effort on a particular course of action, and have a proposal on the table. The grocers started participating in November. Five months into the discussion, it is time for farmers and consumers to participate, and set the tone. I simply urged people to submit positive comments about their market experience. Frankly, if Aaron, or any other member of the Portland Farmers’ Market staff, supports the concerns of the Northwest Grocers Association (NGA), they can write a note as well. Once rules are drafted, notice is sent, and the rules are submitted for public review, it is very hard to change them.
Aaron raises what he believes is the legitimate issue of the grocers’ license fee subsidizing farmers’ market inspections. Here is an example of the subsidy at hand. The maximum fee for a “Bakery License” is $1,530 for a bakery grossing more than $10-million. Now, a small scale baker who sells at the farmers’ market and grosses $5,000 a year pays the minimum license fee of $230. The argument is that the ODA inspectors choose to inspect both the bakery and the market stall, so there is an additional cost because the small baker sells at the market. So what part of the $1,530 that the $10-million bakery pays is subsidizing the small $5,000 bakery? And is that small bakery really such a fearsome competitor? These are questions of proportionality. The fees were fixed in statute by the industry, and perhaps they got the math wrong. Whatever the subsidy is, if it exists, it is certainly not bringing the industry to its knees, and does not seem to call for licensing entire markets.
Unfortunately, the industry has not provided concrete numbers and examples of the exact nature of the purported subsidy, or more accurately, the fee inequity in the various licenses. It is still a poorly defined concept.
As Aaron notes, the NGA also expressed the desire to run an outdoor market. Any organization or company can set up a true farmers’ market. For example, Safeway can do it, as long as they are not taking possession of the food. It does not matter whether the organization acting as an agent or landlord is a profit or nonprofit. The key point is that the vendors retain control over their food so their license or exemption applies to them. In the case of fruit and vegetable vendors, they must have grown the produce as well, in order retain their exemption.
What NGA is proposing is a very different. They want to take the fruits and vegetables they own but did not grow, fish they own but did not catch, cheese they own but did not make, eggs they own but did not gather, and meat they own but did not slaughter, and sell it outdoors. These foods may have been purchased from the farm around the corner, or from China. That is a very different proposition, and has no connection with a farmers’ market. The ODA and NGA can simply work out the rules for this sort of outdoor sale without dragging the farmers’ markets into the matter.
The safety factor in direct sales, such as at a farmers’ market, is structural. In the case of our fruits and vegetables, they are picked and sold within 18 hours. Most do not need washing, a potentially dangerous step with respect to food safety, especially when the water is recirculated and not fresh. Direct sales from farms such as ours are an epidemiologist’s dream. We can locate within a few feet where the fruit or vegetable was grown. Most of us use drip irrigation which is a big factor in reducing hazards. Finally, because Carol and I eat off of the farm, we are likely the first victim if there is a problem. If people don’t think our fruits and vegetables are healthy, they can go to a grocery store. This is the basis for exempting from licensing the sale of fruits and vegetables sold by the farmer who grew them.
Once again, all processed and potentially hazardous foods sold at the farmers markets are from licensed facilities. Only fresh fruits and vegetables grown by the farmer who sells them are exempt. In looking at the statistics from other states, especially with respect to dairy products, comparisons are difficult because regulations vary. For example, about half of the states allow raw milk sales, Oregon doesn’t. ODA readily acknowledges that there have been no reported food borne illnesses related to Oregon’s farmers’ markets.
This debate is being driven by two problems the NGA has identified last November. These can be addressed without any interference in the current farmers’ market licensing structure. If we are going to address food safety at farmers’ markets, it should be done on a methodical basis apart from NGA complaints about subsidies and outdoor sales. The Oregon Farmers’ Market Association has organized a food safety committee, and that is the sensible place to start the discussion.
Ayers Creek Farm
Aaron S. says
My opinions are posted as MY opinions, not my employers. They are formed from over 15 years of farming, prior to my employment with the Portland Farmers market. When speaking for my employer, I will be very clear of that position.
A similar food safety “debate” has gone on for years around the practice of pasture-raised poultry. Producers who raise poultry (mainly chickens) on their farms, process the birds on the farm and market the birds from the farm are exempt from all regulations, provided they produce
Ida A. Lane says
Instead of trying to regulate our farmer’s markets, try regulating the spoiled food delivered to our local grocers by United Grocers Association. Last week I bought grapes grown in Chile from our local market, thoroughly washed them, then ate a few. The skins were too tough to chew, I bit into one and my mouth was flooded with liquid that burned the inside of my mouth. Even after spitting it out and rinsing with water, my throat still burned all the way to my stomach. I called the Poison Control Center and was told to take the grapes back to the grocer and get my money back, that the grapes had already begun to ferment and make wine inside the skins. I took them back, talked to the owner who was very candid in telling me he had no choice but to accept what UGA delivered to them at whatever price they wished to charge.
WHO NEEDS TO BE CONTROLLED, THE FARMER’S MARKETS WHO WE KNOW AND TRUST, OR WHOLESALERS WHO DELIVER SPOILED AND CONTAMINATED PRODUCE TO OUR GROCERS????
Sing it, sister! ;o)