FILED IN: Health - Safety

Farmers markets raise concerns about contamination of produce

Farmers Markets leave questions about food safety. Via Flickr Commons.

By 2012, the demand for local food is expected to hit $7 billion, almost twice what it was in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of that food is provided by the 6,000+ farmers markets in the United States (up 40 percent in the past five years).

While local food is obviously growing in popularity, there is also growing concern over the safety of local food and how to keep out the pathogens that have caused nationwide outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli, and, most recently, listeria, in commercial foods.

People generally see food from a local stand or farmers market as being more wholesome than food from a grocery store, there is no evidence that it is any less likely to cause foodborne illness. Even worse, in general it receives less oversight from federal and local authorities.

Few pathogen outbreaks have been directly associated with farmers markets, but most of the time the source of a foodborne illness is never identified. Also, minor outbreaks of foodborne illness often go unreported (for instance, the federal government estimates that there are 29 unconfirmed cases for every confirmed case of salmonellosis).

Small farms have been exempted by Congress from the safety requirements of the new Food Safety Modernization Act. The exemption is specific to small farms that sell locally. The exemption was based on the idea that implementing the new safety requirements would be too expensive and too much of a burden for small-scale growers.  Small farms will also be exempt from the requirements that the FDA will finalize over the next two years, developing a detailed food safety plan, keeping extensive records and complying with produce safety rules.

Farmers markets fall under the jurisdiction of state and local governments, but often those inspectors will only visit a market once or twice a season, leaving the market to set it own rules. In the 2006 USDA National farmers Market Manager Survey, only 14 percent of market managers reported regulation of market rules and bylaws by the state and only 20 percent reported city, county or municipal government regulation.

Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes farmers markets, representing more than 3,500 markets, says that each farmers market organization develops its own policies. She added that prospective vendors might be required to submit an application, show proof of insurance and any relevant licenses, and be inspected.