Image: Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
Stephanie Snyder  /  News21
Shoppers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco speak with farmers of Happy Quail Farms on June 25, 2011. Farmers markets generally receive less federal and local oversight, but the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is an exception. Farmers must complete an application up to 17 pages long, be screened for several months and undergo an on-site examinations by market managers.
By
updated 10/4/2011 8:31:32 AM ET 2011-10-04T12:31:32
Part two of three

Against the backdrop of San Francisco’s skyline, investment banker Ali Dagli strolled through rows of fresh-picked produce, chatting with farmers as he carefully packed his purchases into a canvas bag slung casually over his shoulder.

“It’s great to see these guys who are passionate about the food that they bring here,” said Dagli while shopping at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on a recent Saturday morning. “If I go to Safeway, it has no heart. There is heart here at the farmers market.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way. Dagli is part of a fast-growing consumer trend: Demand for local food is expected to reach $7 billion by 2012, nearly doubling since 2002, according to the Agriculture Department. And with more than 6,000 farmers markets currently operating in the United States — a 40 percent jump in the past five years — they are an easy place for consumers to go to get their fresh-food fix.

But the rise in popularity is accompanied by a parallel rise in concerns about how best to keep these local consumers safe from the same pathogens responsible for nationwide outbreaks of salmonella, listeria and E. coli in commercially produced foods.

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Although the fare sold at farmers markets often is perceived as more wholesome than what’s available on grocery shelves, there is no evidence that it is less prone to cause foodborne illness — and it generally receives less federal and local oversight.

About this project

While few pathogen outbreaks have been linked to farmers markets, most sources of foodborne illness are never identified, and small outbreaks often go unreported. For instance, for every confirmed case of salmonellosis, at least 29 cases go unreported, according to federal estimates.

Congress exempted small farms from the more rigorous safety requirements of the new Food Safety Modernization Act. The exemption applies to farms that gross under $500,000 annually and sell the majority of their products directly to consumers, restaurants or stores in their state or within 275 miles of the farm.

The legislation followed a year-and-a-half-long polarizing debate in which small farmers, with a deep mistrust of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, found common ground with an unexpected and surprisingly powerful coalition: locavore consumers who savor food from local growers and tea party members fighting big government.

The exemption, spelled out in the act’s Tester-Hagan Amendment, was based on the argument that implementing the new requirements would be too expensive and burdensome for small-scale growers. At the heart of the argument, however, is the belief that food from small farms doesn’t make large numbers of people sick — an assertion not supported by scientific evidence. The small farms will also be exempt from having to develop a detailed food safety plan, keeping extensive records and complying with produce safety rules that FDA will finalize over the next two years.

  1. News 21 special report: How safe is your food?
    1. Flood of food imported, just 2 percent inspected
    2. As farmers markets thrive, so do concerns
    3. How does your state handle outbreaks?
    4. Interactive quiz: Seafood shuffle
    5. Food imports to the U.S., 2002-2010
    6. Tips to protect yourself from foodborne illness
    7. Key findings of News21 food safety investigation

Critics of the Tester-Hagan Amendment believe that it was misguided: “There’s no scientific basis for Tester,” said David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Pubic Interest, one of the consumer advocacy groups that took part in the FSMA debate. “It’s an accommodation so that the bill would be able to make its way through the Senate and the Congress and get to the president’s desk.”

State and local governments have jurisdiction over farmers markets. But while health inspectors may visit once or twice a season, most markets are left to set their own rules. Only 14 percent of market managers reported state government regulation of market rules and bylaws, according to the 2006 USDA National Farmers Market Manager Survey. Just 20 percent reported city, county or municipal government involvement.

That leaves the issue of whether and how to oversee food safety largely to the markets’ managers and vendor-operated boards of directors.

Each market sets own policies
Each farmers market organization develops its own policies and means of enforcement, according to Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes farmers markets, representing more than 3,500 markets. Prospective vendors may be required to submit an application, present proof of insurance and any relevant licenses, and be inspected, she added.

The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco features 80 local farms and attracts some 25,000 shoppers over the three days each week that it is open. The variety of produce on display is rivaled only by the variety of people who shop there: home cooks, gourmet chefs, health nuts, tourists and food devotees known as locavores.

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Because space is limited and very popular with vendors, the market has exceptionally tough requirements. Farmers wishing to join must complete an application up to 17 pages long, be screened for several months and undergo an on-site examination by market managers regarding the farm’s food safety and sustainability practices concerning soil, crops, water, pests, waste, harvest, storage, energy, labor and sales.

Managers who conduct these inspections have a general understanding of agriculture and handling guidelines for food safetyfromUSDA and the Food and Drug Administration, but they are not specifically trained, said Dave Stockdale, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which has operated the market since 1999.

California requires all farmers markets to be certified through the local county health department’s agriculture commissioner. Market managers must make sure that vendors are following state health codes and farmers are selling only food they grew themselves.  

“Food safety is a concern,” Stockdale said. “In the state of California, there are no specific on-farm food safety certifications that people must possess. That’s one of the reasons we ask so many questions and have such a long application, because it helps us understand what to look for when we go visit a site.”

Elsewhere, vendor selection is not always as strict.

In Arizona, for example, the Phoenix Public Market has a one-page application for prospective sellers wanting to join the 120 vendors currently active in the semi-weekly open-air market and accompanying grocery store, which are operated by Community Food Connections.

“Somebody from here tries to get out and visit the different growers,” said Cindy Gentry, the nonprofit’s founder and executive director, but sometimes farms aren’t inspected until after they start selling at the market.

When conducting farm visits, Gentry looks for production quantity to match growing capabilities, and also analyzes worker sanitation, farming methods, processing and distribution.

“It’s been a learning curve for me,” she said, adding that she has received some on-the-job training from farmers who sell at the market regarding proper agricultural and handling practices used to ensure food safety.

Gentry said small farms should not be held to the same government standards as commercial farms due to their limited resources and the greater level of transparency in direct sales between farmer and consumer.

However, Richard Molinar, small farm program adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno, thinks the local food movement will put pressure on local farms to develop food safety plans.

“Certainly more people are wanting to buy fresh and buy local; that doesn’t mean that they’re not concerned about food safety,” said Molinar, who helps small farmers develop scaled-down food safety manuals. “When you go to swap meets or farmers markets, I think at some point consumers are going to want to see or know if those farmers have some kind of policy in place.”

Story: Tips to protect yourself from foodborne illness

Elizabeth Armstrong has already reached that point. The Indianapolis mother of two is an exceptionally motivated local food devotee.

In 2006, her then-2-year-old daughter nearly died of kidney failure after eating commercially produced spinach contaminated with E. coli. As a result, Armstrong refuses to buy grocery store produce, instead serving her family vegetables from their own garden and fruits bought at farmers markets just minutes from their home.

“What’s important for us, as a consumer, is just to have the transparency that the farmer will tell us how he is producing his food and what steps he’s taking to ensure that it’s safe,” she said. “Then it’s our choice.”

Coming Wednesday: Tainted seafood reaching American tables, experts say

News21 reporters Maggie Clark, Andy Marso, Madhu Rajaraman contributed to this report.

Explainer: How safe is the nation's food? Key findings

  • Image: FDA inspection
    Kyle Bruggeman/News21  /  News21
    Fish samples are cut for inspection inside the FDA's $40- million facility in Irvine, Calif., on July 20, 2011.

    The question seemed simple enough: How safe is the nation's food?

    But the answer, as 27 college journalists discovered, is devilishly complicated.

    The students, working through the News21 in-depth digital journalism program based at both at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland, spent 10 weeks this summer interviewing experts, traveling across the country and to Central America, poring over government documents and collecting data in order to thoroughly document how food travels from the farm to your fork.

    What they found will certainly give you plenty to chew on. Among the key findings:

    — Foodborne illnesses sicken one person in six — 48 million — in the U.S. each year. Of those, 128,000 require hospitalization and 3,000 die.

    — Contamination by foodborne pathogens such as listeria and salmonella remains commonplace and cases of infection by the latter are rising.

    — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration anticipates that 24 million agency-regulated products will enter the U.S. in 2011, but it expects to inspect only 1.59 percent of them.

    —  Even though small farms lobbied Congress successfully for an exemption from new federal food safety regulations, there is no scientific evidence that their products are safer than those produced by large farms.

    "I had no idea prior to the investigation how widespread the problems were," said Mattea Kramer, a News21 journalist.

    Click here to read News21's complete online investigation, How Safe is Your Food?

    Or click to view some other highlights below.

    Source: News21

  • Eating local

    Image: Farmers market grow in popularity, but not in food safety scrutiny
    Holly Marcus  /  The Daily News-Record via AP fil
    Farmers market grow in popularity, but not in food safety scrutiny.


    Stephanie Snyder loves her farmers market in Phoenix, Ariz., where fruits and veggies are crisp, fresh and ready to eat. But that changed when Snyder delved deeper into the safety standards governing small farms and farmers markets.

    "It was shocking to learn that no one was really regulating these markets," said Snyder, News21's reporter behind "Farmers Markets Thrive While Concerns Grow".

    "There was no continuity of standards," Snyder said. "The intentions are all great, but there is a responsibility to make it better than it is now."

    In the category, "The Dangers of Buying Local," News21 discovered:

    — Farmers markets tend to get less oversight.

    Contaminated poultry, unsafe conditions and unlawful sales were found at farmers markets in Washington, D.C.

    Click here to read how San Francisco's market tops the safety chart.

  • Seafood

    Image: Shrimp processing in Thailand
    Chumsak Kanoknan  /  Getty Images file
    A worker processes shrimp in a shrimp factory.

    Imported salmon, tuna and shrimp — in some cases filthy and infected with bacteria and drugs banned in the United States — are finding a way onto American dinner plates, News21's analysis shows.

    In the last decade, the United States imported more than 17.6 million tons of seafood; federal safety workers were able to inspect about 2 percent of imports, News21 reported. Other findings:

    — More than 51 percent of the inspected seafood that was rejected was contaminated by foodborne pathogens, spoilage or deformities.

    — About 20 percent of those cases involved salmonella.

    — Only 0.1 percent of seafood was tested for banned drug residues.

  • Salmonella

    Little progress is being made to stop salmonella contamination of poultry, the leading cause of foodborne illness, an analysis shows.

    In the categories of "Risks" and "Response", News21 discovered:

    — The rate of salmonella infections is on the rise, despite attempts to stop it.

    — Examination of federal and state records shows that differences among states in reporting foodborne illnesses hinder officials in identifying outbreak sources before they spread nationwide.

    Lax regulations lead to cutting corners for some egg producers, and some producers are reluctant to pay for inexpensive safety measures.

  • Inspections

    Kyle Bruggeman/News21  /  News21
    FDA Consumer Safety Officer Dennis Hoang verifies a refused shipment at Southwest Processors, an FDA destruction site in Los Angeles on July 19, 2011.

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's inspectors are struggling to keep up with the flood of food imports into the U.S., scrutinizing only 2 percent of the imports. News21 research also shows:

    —The agency expects 1.59 percent of all food imports to be inspected in 2011 and even less — only 1.47 percent — in 2012.

    — Inspectors are tolerant of ants and other insects that get mixed in with foods before harvesting because they pose little threat to human health.

    — More than 70 percent of safety plan violations for seafood and juice processors remain unresolved after more than a year.

    Click here to read about how the FDA depends on "The Nose".

  • About News21

    News21 is a journalism initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami to promote in-depth and innovative journalism.

    The News21 students were based at both Arizona State University and the University of Maryland for 10 weeks this summer under the direction of top faculty members from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and CPI data researchers.

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