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