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 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture. And with more than 6,000 farmers markets currently operating in the U.S. — 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 rise in concerns about how best to keep these local consumers safe from the same pathogens responsible for nationwide outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli in commercially produced foods.
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.
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.
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 whether and how to oversee food safety largely to the markets’ managers and vendor-operated boards of directors.
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 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 enthusiasts, tourists and food devotees known as locavores.
Because space is limited and the market is popular with vendors, it 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 safety from USDA and the U.S. 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.”
Elizabeth Armstrong has already reached that point. The Indianapolis mother of two represents 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.”