Permits for farmers markets a public health concern, officials say
Officials with the state Bureau for Public Health say the evolution of the farmers market means there is no clear-cut definition and no simple way for the state to enact a one-size-fits-all permit.
Currently, local health departments are responsible for issuing permits and inspecting farmers markets — which now sell anything from fruits and vegetables to dairy products and homemade jams — but some farmers market groups have suggested the state should be in charge of permitting and inspecting vendors. The Agriculture and Rural Development Committee is looking into permitting sustainability and requirements as part of Senate Concurrent Resolution 42. According to the resolution, permits issued by counties are not always recognized by other jurisdictions, fiscally straining vendors who sell in more than one county. But issuing statewide permits could strain the Bureau for Public Health’s Public Sanitation Division six sanitarians.
“That would not be enough to send out to the 100 or more farmers markets . . . up and running and in operation in the state,” said Ann Goldberg, director of public health regulations for the Bureau for Public Health. “We would significantly have to increase our staff if there is a statewide permit where the state has the responsibility to inspect the farmers market facilities.”
Permitting and inspection are public health issues, she said, and the relationship vendors build with local sanitarians goes a long way in keeping food safe from contamination.
But farmers markets have changed over the years. The sale of fruits and vegetables at a roadside stand has given way to larger organized markets that sometimes sell dairy products, poultry or eggs. Those products typically fall under food establishment regulations, not farmers market rules. That’s what led the Bureau for Public Health to begin working with farmers market vendors in 2006 to create a policy that regulates the sale of those products at farmers markets across the state.
“It was the first step we took to help farmers market vendors wanting to get into different types of products such as meats and eggs and chickens,” said Brad Cochran with the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Environmental Health Services. “They’re getting into a different type of market there.”
The policy aims to clarify for local sanitarians the permits a vendor requires based on the products being sold.
“With 55 different health departments, you’re going to get consistency issues on different things,” Cochran said.
But there are many products that don’t require a permit at all, such as jams and jellies, commercially harvested fruits and vegetables and shelf-stable foods. However, vendors still are required to register with the local health department.
Health departments also are responsible for establishing a permit fee, though Cochran said many across the state are willing to waive or lower the fee for vendors.
But, he said, permits and fees aren’t about collecting money from farmers market vendors — it’s about maintaining food safety across the board, and that’s why the responsibility should stay with the local health departments.
“Form a public health perspective, its about public safety,” he said. “If a statewide permit is issued for a farmers market vendor, or any vendor . . . the inspection program will fall drastically.”
But Delegate Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, asked officials if there is any set definition of a farmers market, referring to the evolution vendors have seen in recent years. He said the Legislature must first define a farmers market before it sets out trying to regulate them. Goldberg said no set standard or legal definition exists as far as West Virginia law is concerned.
“That definitely would be important to understand what we’re really including in a farmers market permit,” Ireland said.
The Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development will continue discussion on Senate Concurrent Resolution 42 throughout the interim period and report its findings to the full Legislature during the 2015 regular session.
Contact writer Whitney Burdette at 304-348-7939 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.Twitter.com/wburdette_DM.