SALEM — This summer, the Oregon Department of Agriculture will send out inspectors to scan every farmers market in the state to help decide whether new rules are necessary to reduce potential health hazards to market-goers.
So two food-safety talks the state will offer the farmers market community in Central Oregon this weekend are more than just education — they amount to fair warning.
The state’s “surveillance” exercise, as ODA Food Safety Manager Ellen Laymon calls it, could conceivably lead to big changes that affect local residents. Around Central Oregon last summer, shoppers could find a market every day but Thursdays — and two on Saturdays and Sundays.
Laymon said that other counties and states have passed regulations that, if adopted here, would significantly change the way those markets — and all the ones in Oregon — operate.
Those tarts and cakes, for instance? In Oregon, they need to be shown in an enclosed display case. But in other states, they have to be individually packaged.
The specialty meats and seafood? Some jurisdictions don’t allow them to be sold at farmers markets, period.
How about the increasingly popular Oregon artisan cheeses? In Oregon, cheese-makers have to be licensed, but in other states, homemade cheese at farmers markets can’t be sold at all.
Even free food samples are banned in some out-of-state markets.
Laymon stressed the department has no evidence that there are unsafe practices in Oregon farmers markets. “We can’t even link one illness to a farmers market purchase,” she said.
But she also said that while her agency does set food-safety guidelines for farmers and vendors who participate in the markets, Oregon may be the only state in the nation where markets are not regulated by enforceable rules that can lead to fines.
Laymon sits on the executive board of a national group called the Association of Food and Drug Officials. In years of sharing information with other food-safety managers around the country, she’s never heard of another state besides Oregon where the popular local food-oriented events aren’t already regulated.
“Depending on what we find, that could change,” she said.
The local farmers market community has been buzzing about the possibility of new rules, said Ann Snyder, a farmer who raises goat, pigs and lambs to supply the Madras farmers market.
“It’s a topic of concern,” she said. “The more you regulate, the more expensive it’s going to be for people to participate in farmers markets in this economy.”
She said she hasn’t seen any food-safety issues at farmers markets. She noted that she already is inspected by ODA and has to have meat butchered at a special U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved facility.
Laymon said it’s “very premature” to start worrying about what her department may decide. “We may walk away from all this surveillance and say, ‘We don’t need regulations,’” she said.