Commentary from the Food Safety Network’s Brae Surgeoner
In years past I’ve spent Friday nights under the patio heaters at the Albion Hotel in Guelph, Ontario, drinking gin and tonic, and longing for summer to arrive.
These days I’m more inclined to spend a Friday night counting my pocket change and scanning the classifieds for garage sale notices. At precisely 7:30 Saturday morning my sister will pull into my driveway eager to hit the first sale.
By this time in May we’ve established a route. We’ve trained our eyes to recognize garage sale signs from several street blocks away, and we know (without speaking) what constitutes a drive-by. By 9:30 our stomachs are rumbling and the only sale that’s going to entice us to pullover is a church bazarre — where we’re assured of good conversation and some tasty home baking. But as has been the case so far this year, when there’s no bazarre on the radar, our final stop is the local farmers’ market.
It’s that food, at both church sales and farmers’ markets across Ontario, that has been causing regulatory and personal angst.
As the buy-local movement has surged, and many farmers’ markets have become agricultural success stories, Ontario public health officials have produced a 48-page draft report with food safety guidelines intended to modernize health regulations and protect the one million Ontarians who visit farmers’ markets each year. But interested parties who believe this document is going to have a negative impact on the continued existence of farmers’ markets call it bogus.
In response to rumors earlier this month that these new regulations were on the way to deal with inconsistent governing of public health rules across the province, various stakeholders (largely consumers) wrote into their local newspapers arguing that Big Brother had gone too far. Many demanded to know how farmers would be expected to comply with the same measures applied to restaurants and grocery stores.
Robert Chorney, executive director of Farmers’ Markets Ontario, told reporters that consumers shouldn’t worry about food safety at the markets, “We don’t have an emergency situation. Nothing’s going bad.”
In defense of Health Minister George Smitherman’s, statement, “There are genuine risks that need to be well-managed,” he’s right; there are legitimate public health concerns driving his desire to modernize the way in which farmers’ markets operate, and there needs to be strategies in place to assure the consumer a safe product.
Any food can be risky, at a fancy restaurant or a farmers’ market.
In 1994, 64 people contracted salmonellosis after eating a local Mennonite specialty, cook cheese, prepared by an elderly couple in a traditional manner and sold at a farmers’ market in Waterloo, Ontario.
In 2003, a two-year-old Edmonton girl was hospitalized with a potentially deadly E. coli infection after eating unpasteurized Gouda cheese that was sold or given away as samples from the Strathcona and St. Albert farmers’ markets in Alberta.
While similar reports of foodborne illness from foods sold at markets are admittedly scarce, it’s not to say it hasn’t (or won’t) happen — markets are not inherently safer or more dangerous than any other food establishment.
So on Saturday morning, following an uneventful garage sale outing, my mission to the market was twofold: to satisfy my hunger for something homegrown or baked, and to get a sense of vendors’ reaction to all the hoopla about food safety and farmers’ markets.
If I expected to see victory signs and dances of triumph following Smitherman’s decision late last week to back down from plans to enforce the feared food safety health regulations, I was greatly disappointed — it was business at usual at the Guelph Farmers’ Market.
With camera in hand I stealthily took pictures of handwashing stations, and in plain sight, the signs on vendor information boards advertising food handling courses with the local health unit; this is not a market that appears to be sweeping food safety under vendor stalls.
Just like almost everyone else who goes to the farmers’ market for that face-to-face connection with the person producing his or her food, I had to wait my turn for a chance to talk to the farmer selling me his Mutsu apples.
“I am very aware of my responsibility to provide the public with safe food. And if one person screws up (he points to surrounding vendors), you might as well shut down this entire market,” he explains to me, only too pleased to discuss best management practices related to food safety as he continues to bag his apples.
When I ask him what he thinks about the guidelines that Smitherman still hopes to see become regulation in the future, he admits that a grace period would be nice, but he also voices surprise at how markets have operated for as long as they have with little government interference.
It’s clear to me that this man knows the harmful microorganisms that can destroy the brand name and integrity of a restaurant overnight, can do the same to a market.
As I walked away with my apples I wondered if it’s not the farmers who aren’t ready for the modernization of markets, but the consumers.
In lieu of new regulations this market season, be an active food shopper; ask farmers what steps they take to ensure a safe product and reward the ones who are happy to talk to you — and provide evidence rather than just flowery words –with your dollar.
Brae Surgeoner is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph firstname.lastname@example.org.
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