If you follow the comments here, and especially at marlerblog, you know that the issue of local food markets and “small” farmers comes up regularly in food safety discussions.   Lynne Terry of the Oregonion, a frequent contributor on food safety and health issues, reported today on proposed new legislation in Oregon concerning such food sales.

Oregon HB2336 would exempt a class of small farmers and those retailing at farmers markets from state food regulations and inspections.  According to Terry:

It would allow them to sell unlimited quantities of their own fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs along with cured or dried fruit, vegetables and herbs. It also would allow sales of shelled and unshelled nuts; shell eggs; honey; and whole, hulled crushed or ground grains, legumes and seeds that are cooked before consumption.

To fall within the exemption, “Farmers must grow all the food they sell, and sales of their processed products cannot exceed $20,000 a year.”

Apparently, the new bill is drawing support from at least some health officials in Oregon: 

“The risk of getting sick from any single portion of food is probably small, and there are fixed costs with doing an inspection,” said Dr. Paul Cieslak, head of the communicable disease program at the Oregon Public Health Division. “At some point, the inspection doesn’t become worth it anymore.”

I think there are unanswered questions about the potential public health impact of such an exemption.   Are lower volume suppliers of food actually less likely to cause illness?  Or is it more that isolated or sporadic instances of food poisoning are less likely to be uncovered by public health surveillance?  Is there evidence to suggest that small farms are any more or less likely to allow adulteration of their food products that larger producers?

Given the prevalence of proposed legislation like the Oregon bill, we may be on our way to answering some of these questions – hopefully not the hard way.