Outside the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, government workers and tourists shop for fresh produce, poultry, baked goods and other items at the Friday farmers market the agency sponsors.
Like farmers markets around the country, this one is thriving, due in part to the perception — not supported by science — that locally grown food is healthier than the mass-produced products found on grocery store shelves.
But customers of this market, operated by one of the lead agencies in charge of enforcing the nation’s food safety rules, have been buying leaking bags of uninspected raw chicken with salmonella on it, according to tests conducted by a commercial laboratory for News21 during the summer of 2011. Also sold at the market: eggs sitting out in 90- and 100-degree temperatures in cartons bearing the USDA-mandated warning that they be refrigerated at all times.
The problem is not confined to this one site. A few blocks away near the White House, at the farmers market where Michelle Obama promoted a healthy-eating campaign two years ago, chicken tainted with campylobacter bacteria was being sold, the laboratory found.
Campylobacter and salmonella are two of the most common causes of food poisoning, sickening more than a million people in the U.S. each year, according to government estimates. Most victims recover without treatment, but severe infections can result in hospitalization and, in extreme cases, death.
Both of the vendors whose poultry tested positive for the pathogens operate farms small enough to qualify for an exemption from federal food safety inspections.
Farmers who claim the exemption are not permitted to sell their products across state lines, however, officials said. The farmer at the market near the White House drives four hours from Pennsylvania; the vendor at the USDA market has a farm 100 miles from the capital in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
The farmers say they were unaware of, or unclear about, the restriction. And no one was checking to make sure they followed the rules, which can be confusing even to those who are supposed to enforce them. Two regional USDA officials interviewed by News21 were unaware of the prohibition on interstate sales.
Alerted to the violations, USDA suspended poultry sales by the vendor at its market while it conducts an investigation.
The lab tests for News21, a journalism-education program funded by the Carnegie Corporation. and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, were conducted by the Baltimore division of Microbac, a federally certified laboratory with locations nationwide.
Microbac tested raw poultry from seven farmers markets and grocery store chains, all within 1½ miles of the U.S. Capitol. Five of the seven sample tested positive for campylobacter, and two were positive for salmonella.
The findings are anecdotal but show that it is not unusual to find pathogens in raw poultry, whether it comes from a small farm or a large processor. A 2009 study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that 44 percent of the chicken breasts tested were contaminated with campylobacter and 21 percent had salmonella.
It is not illegal to sell poultry and other meat containing salmonella or campylobacter bacteria. Regulators instead have placed the responsibility on consumers to understand the importance of cooking meat thoroughly and avoiding cross contamination of other foods on the way from market to oven.
Efforts to prevent foodborne illnesses have yielded mixed results over the past 15 years. The overall rate of six types of infection, including campylobacter, has been cut 23 percent; but the incidence of salmonella is unchanged over that period and has even increased in recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in June.
CDC estimates that 1.8 million people are sickened, 27,000 are hospitalized and 400 die each year from salmonella and campylobacter infections. The main host for the pathogens is poultry; salmonella in produce and eggs is also a growing problem.
The bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of animals — campylobacter is especially widespread in chickens — and can spread quickly. Because the animals generally show no signs of sickness, and because the pathogens are invisible and odorless, detection requires testing.
Many consumers equate small farms and the farmers markets they supply with safer food. That’s not necessarily the case, say scientists.
“There’s no data to say that small farmers or producers or processors are in any way safer than large ones,” said Dr. William E. Keene, senior epidemiologist with the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division.
The issues uncovered at the USDA-run market highlight some weak spots in the maze of federal, state and local regulations dealing with food safety and illustrate the danger for consumers who think that locally grown foods offer more protection from food poisoning.
“We’re finding that there’s less pressure on a vendor at a [farmers] market to implement risk reduction because the perception is that the product is safe already,” said Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University. “At a grocery store growers have all these specifications they have to hit, but that’s absent in the farmers market.”
Under the Radar
J&L Green, the farm that was selling uninspected poultry at the USDA market, labeled its chicken packages “PL90-492 VA Poultry Exemption” — even though it had not registered with the state for an exemption.
But because of the claimed exemption available to farmers who process fewer than 20,000 birds a year, no USDA inspector had ever looked at how Jordan and Laura Green raise and slaughter chickens on their farm in Edinburg, Va. The agency generally reviews exempt operations only if it receives a complaint.
Farmers decide whether they want to operate under an exemption from inspections. However, they do not have to notify USDA that they have claimed an exemption, so the agency does not keep track of them.
State governments may have their own rules. Virginia, for example, requires farmers to fill out a two-page registration form, which Jordan Green said he had not known about and had not submitted. (He has since done so.)
When the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service accepted J&L Green into its farmers market earlier this year, officials failed to catch that he was not registered in Virginia for the exemption he claimed or that, if he did have an exemption, he was violating its prohibition on transporting exempted poultry across state lines for sale.
The farmers market manager, Velma Lakins, said she was aware that J&L Green Farm labeled its chicken as exempt but didn’t know about the state-line restriction.
Green called it “kind of astounding” that the federal government makes regulations and then doesn’t follow up on them. “They don’t even check in their backyard,” he said of the farmers market outside USDA headquarters.
And because the market is on federal property, District of Columbia health inspectors do not have jurisdiction.
Green also had been selling his goods at another farmers market in the city and counts among his customers the Occidental Grill & Seafood restaurant at the Willard, the historic Pennsylvania Avenue hotel that has hosted U.S. presidents as far back as James Polk.
Green said he is no longer selling poultry in the District of Columbia, but he is able to sell other products from his farm, including vegetables and meat that have passed inspection.
The Microbac lab tested two J&L Green poultry samples (with eight pieces in each) and one whole chicken for News21. All three samples tested positive for salmonella. One of the three samples was tested for campylobacter, and it, too, was positive.
“Our process as a whole is sanitary when operated correctly,” Green said when notified of the results, adding, “Mistakes do happen.”
Green said he had recently noticed his plastic bags of fresh chicken leaking at the USDA farmers market. He said it was hard to keep bags from tearing and, as a result, he was moving away from fresh toward frozen poultry. One drop of chicken juice can contain enough campylobacter to infect a person.
Leaking juices present a particular cross-contamination hazard at a farmers market, where shoppers also may be buying peaches or lettuce and placing their purchases in the same bag. And since produce is often eaten uncooked, any pathogens would not be killed.
Eggs Warmed Over
Another food safety problem at the USDA farmers market was spotted at the C&T Produce stand, where eggs were for sale that had been trucked to the capital in an unrefrigerated van from a farm in Fredericksburg, Va., about 50 miles away. The egg cartons had USDA-mandated labels stating they should be refrigerated.
Lakins, the market manager, said in an interview that she saw the eggs in coolers with ice packs. But Craig DeBernard — who co-owns C&T with his wife, Tracy — said he had not known the eggs had to be refrigerated and did not do so.
Virginia agriculture inspectors later saw C&T’s unrefrigerated eggs at a farmers market in that state; a pamphlet for the market says that “eggs offered for sale must be held at 45 degrees or less at all times.”
“The inspectors came around and said they needed to be packed on ice,” DeBernard said.
C&T will no longer sell eggs at farmers markets during hot summer months, he said, and will use an iced cooler in the fall.
‘A Gray Area’
Emanuel Kauffman, owner of Garden Path Farms of Newburg, Pa., the vendor at the farmers market near the White House whose chicken tested positive for campylobacter, said he was unaware he was not supposed to cross state lines to sell his products.
Like J&L Green, Garden Path is eligible for an exemption from federal inspection requirements because it sells just 3,000 chickens a year. Kauffman said he has never had a problem signing up to sell at markets in Maryland and the District.
“Transporting across state lines is a gray area,” he said.
It’s not to Ann Yonkers, director of Freshfarm Markets, which operates nearly a dozen markets including the one near the White House. Yonkers said Freshfarm requires USDA inspections of the meat and dairy products sold at its markets, since all farmers must cross state lines to sell in the District, where Freshfarms has six locations. She said she would review Kauffman’s file.
Though Garden Path’s slaughter operation is exempt from federal inspections, its meat-packaging activities are inspected by the state. But Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture does not test for pathogens unless it has a reasonable suspicion that something is wrong.
Kauffman believes his farming practices — the chickens live on grass in outdoor paddocks — are safer than Big Agriculture’s. Garden Path used to put stickers with safe-cooking instructions on its packages of chicken but had stopped because, Kauffman said, his customers already know how to prepare chicken. Such stickers are required by the state, however, and he has resumed using them.
“There may be a customer who thinks, because this is a small-farm operation, that there’s no bacteria in [the chicken]. So we’re putting those labels back on,” he said after learning about the presence of pathogens in his product. “The last thing we ever want to do is make anyone sick.”
For the five other markets tested by Microbac, all of them in Southeast Washington, campylobacter was found in chicken from both a Harris Teeter store and Capitol Hill Poultry in Eastern Market, and salmonella and campylobacter were found in chicken from a Safeway. Chicken samples from Yes! Organic Market and Market Poultry, another vendor in Eastern Market, tested negative for both pathogens.
Harris Teeter spokesperson Catherine Reuhl noted that it is not uncommon for raw chicken to have bacteria. She said in an email: “Our raw chicken has cooking instructions, which, if followed, make it safe for consumption.”
Safeway’s Craig Muckle said: “While this is an industry issue and not specific to Safeway, we have alerted our supplier, a nationally branded company with a reputation for the highest food safety standards. We remind our customers about safe food handling and that proper cooking will take care of any salmonella and campylobacter in raw product.”
And Capitol Hill Poultry owner Ju Young Jung said he will conduct a test on his chicken to see if it arrives contaminated or if that happens once it’s at his facility.