Monday, April 13, 2009

Farmers' Markets: State of Alarm

"This summer, the Oregon Department of Agriculture will send out inspectors to scan every farmers' market in the state to help decide whether new rules are necessary to reduce potential health hazards to market-goers."
- Bend Bulletin, Mar. 5, 2009

Concern is building among farmers' market supporters, vendors and managers about recent rumblings over at the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture (ODA) indicating that they may be poised to impose new regulations based on what ODA Food Safety Manager Ellen Laymon refers to as "surveillance" exercises, according to a recent article in the Bend (OR) Bulletin titled "Fair Warning, Farmers Markets."

You may remember that almost exactly two years ago, after the scare over e. coli-contaminated California spinach, the state ODA was moving to increase its authority over farmers’ markets by licensing farmers’ market associations as a class of "retail food establishments."

This time the ODA is taking a slightly different tack by clamping down on market vendors, even though, according to the article, "Laymon stressed the department has no evidence that there are unsafe practices in Oregon farmers markets. 'We can’t even link one illness to a farmers market purchase,' she said."

As contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm pointed out two years ago, "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." In addition, customers, market managers and the farmer community have proven far more effective as regulators than a paper license and an inspector who shows up once a year.

In a recent Oregonian article covering the peanut contamination, it was reported that ODA staff waited four days to alert people of potential problems: "Laymon said state officials learned late Friday that tanker trucks filled with potentially contaminated peanut butter had gone out across the country, but waited until Wednesday to call retailers because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the need for conference calls on Tuesday."

What? A three-day weekend and conference calls got in the way of notifying the public about a potential public health emergency? I'm sorry, but if this is how the department prioritizes its time, it sounds like it has more important issues to deal with than sending out inspectors to check on weekend farmers' markets.

To put it plainly, the increase in regulation the ODA is considering this time around wouldn't appreciably improve public safety over current regulations, but would further burden small farmers who operate on relatively low margins and tight schedules as it is. And, if the ODA's Laymon follows through and adopts the draconian measures she cites in other jurisdictions, you might not see any of your favorite purveyors of artisan meats, seafood or cheeses.

If you read the article and want to let someone know how important your farmers' market is to your family's health and well-being, you can e-mail Brian Clem, Chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee; or Jackie Dingfelder, Chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and ask them to keep watch over ODA's activities. For a list of your own state legislators and their e-mail addresses, click here.


LeLo said...

The irony is that our most recent food scares and issues have been in mass production, not small, independent production. Misplaced priorities.

Cathy said...

Thanks for directing us to our elected official's offices. The article in the Bend Bulletin is scary. It will be tragic if the state tries to fix something that isn't broken. Farmer's market are critical to the livlihood of many Oregonian and a source of community pride and spirit. They work just fine as they are.

Kathleen Bauer said...

It's important that we let our representatives in the legislature (and, indeed, in Washington) know how important this resource is, not just for the physical health of Oregonians but the economic health of our communities.

Clare Carver said...

thank you kathleen for oh so important post!! and for the links to reps offices... c