By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
The increasing demand for locally grown and raised food has driven up the number of farmers markets in Indiana, raising questions about whether state and local food-safety officials can keep pace.
The state has only four egg inspectors, a limited number of meat-processing plants that can serve small livestock farmers, and some food-safety laws that are being interpreted differently from county to county.
That’s what a legislative study committee charged with looking at ways for Indiana to capitalize on the local-food movement heard Tuesday. Members of the Interim Study Committee on agriculture have been assigned the task of identifying the obstacles to local food production, processing, and distribution in Indiana.
Republican state Sen. Jean Leising, chair of the committee, said eliminating regulations on what can be sold at farmers markets isn’t the answer.
“I worry about food safety when I put on my old nurse’s hat,” said Leising, a retired nurse and family-farm owner from Oldenburg.
Twenty years ago, there were only about two dozen established farmers markets in Indiana. There are now about 150, according to state Rep. Steve Davisson, R-Salem.
Those farmers markets go beyond just fresh fruits and vegetables; many now offer dairy products, meat, poultry, and eggs. Davisson said the vendors at those markets have told him state and local health regulations created for the commercial food industry make it difficult for local food producers who sell directly to consumers to compete.
Davisson also said that county health departments that are responsible for conducting food safety checks don’t always interpret the rules the same way. “And sometimes within a county, there are inspectors who don’t agree on how to interpret the rules,” Davisson said.
The result is that what can be sold at a farmers market differs from county to county, especially when it comes to farm-fresh eggs.
Mark Straw, head of the Indiana Egg Board, told committee members that his four egg inspectors inspect about 9,000 eggs a year — a small portion of the eggs that are produced by the state’s biggest, commercial egg producers.
In 2010, the state egg board created a new category of licenses, specifically for people selling eggs at farmers markets. But he said the board has to rely on county health departments to regulate those sales.
That’s led to some disagreement among counties over how they’re interpreting a state law that requires any vendor who sells “potentially hazardous food products” to get a regulated food establishment license like those required of commercial kitchens, restaurants and grocery stores. The Indiana State Department of Health considers eggs to be potentially hazardous because of their risk of being contaminated with the salmonella, a bacteria that is the most frequently reported cause of foodborne illness.
Some counties are interpreting the law more strictly than others, while some counties are charging high fees for their food-sales licenses, the committee heard.
Gary Haynes, director of legal affairs, licensing and enforcement at the Indiana Board of Animal Health, said the state’s limited number of licensed facilities that slaughter and process livestock is also an issue. The meat and poultry sold at farmers markets, with some exceptions, must come from a processing facility that is inspected by the Indiana Board of Animal Health or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But only a few such facilities in the state are easily accessible to small producers, he said.
The issue of food safety at farmers markets isn’t limited to Indiana. According to the USDA, the number of farmers markets nationally has surged, to 7,175 last year, up from 4,385 five years earlier.
The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration set federal standards for food safety, but mostly rely on states to enforce the rules. There are a range of exemptions for farmers markets, but also a range of interpretations from state to state on how those exemptions are interpreted and how existing rules are enforced.
Both federal and state law ban the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk in Indiana. But state health officials largely overlook the sale of raw milk at farmers markets.
Indiana law requires farmers markets to have adequate hand-washing facilities and it requires anyone handling food to use proper hand-washing techniques meant to minimize the spread of potential contaminants.
But a Purdue University study, released in July, found minimal compliance at Indiana farmers markets with the state’s hand-washing rules. Purdue researchers observed 900 transactions at farmers markets, half of which required the food handlers to wash their hands. The researchers found only two attempts at hand washing were made — an “attempt” defined as rinsing hands but not using soap or drying hands with a disposable towel.
“Compliance was practically non-existent,” the study’s authors wrote.
The study also found that there was a lack of accessible potable water for hand washing at farmers markets, making it difficult for employees to wash their hands while handling food.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.