Thirteen people got sick in 2002 from eating unpasteurized cheese contaminated with E. coli bacteria that they bought at an Alberta farmers market. Two children sustained permanent kidney damage.
E. coli in unpasteurized cow’s milk sickened four people at an Ontario farmers market in 2005, two of whom were hospitalized.
Those are frightening incidents for those who sell food at Alberta’s many summer farmers markets and for those who manage them.
However, food safety issues are rare, and Alberta Agriculture and Alberta Health Services, which are responsible for farmers markets in the province, have regulations in place to ensure they remain that way and hopefully non-existent.
Kelly Bauer, a public health inspector for Alberta’s Clearwater County, gave a webinar April 14 designed to help farmers market vendors and managers keep food and consumers safe.
These markets are considered public venues and are subject to food inspection, said Bauer.
One food handling permit from Alberta Agriculture can cover all vendors, but those who process food at their booths require a separate permit and must comply with other regulations as well. However, it is OK to provide samples.
“Food processing does not include serving or portioning of products for sampling purposes, and samples are bite-sized portions of foods that are handed out for promotion only, at no cost,” said Bauer.
Home-canned products can be sold at farmers markets along with fresh vegetables, fruit and baking, but there are some restrictions.
“Only jams, jellies and pickles can be sold,” Bauer said. “Every year, it becomes a problem as to what can be canned and what can’t be canned and what can be sold at a farmers market and what cannot. Just be-cause you put food in a jar, seal and process it does not make it safe.”
Bauer said the high concentrations of sugar and salt used in standard jam, jelly and pickle canning can eliminate bacteria. So does the canning process itself.
Those who sell such items are expected to use standard safe canning practices, including the use of approved, new lids. Canning lids should never be used twice.
Pickled products must have a pH lower than 4.6. To some people’s surprise, tomatoes may not meet this level of acidity.
Bauer gave a personal example of canned tomatoes she bought and stored in her cold room. Days later, after blaming a nasty odour on her son’s gym bag, she investigated further.
“It turned out that what the terrible stench was, was this jar of tomatoes that was basically just a volcano. It was spewing all over. When I put a garbage bag over it and picked it up, it was like the jar was filled with weasels. You could just feel the energy inside.”
Farmers market vendors who want to sell high-risk food must check beforehand with a health inspector, Bauer said. High-risk food includes cheese, milk, poultry, sauces, antipasto, meats, perogies, cabbage rolls, baked goods with cream filling, meringue pies and cheesecake.
There are also foods that should not be sold at farmers market: raw meat unless it has an inspection certificate; milk unless it has government approval or licence; home-canned food other than jams, jellies and pickles. Bauer said vendors who sell baking must use inspected eggs. Uninspected eggs from their own farms won’t cut it.
“When people buy uninspected eggs, they are aware that they are buying uninspected eggs. When people buy products such as cakes or cookies, they’re assuming that those foods are safe, and there is a chance that they might not be.”
Bauer said vendors should keep receipts for eggs, milk and other purchased ingredients that are used for baking. As well, she said vendors who sell food where safe temperature is an issue should keep a thermometer handy and periodically record temperatures in case of a later complaint.
“People always associate food-borne illness with the last thing that they ate, but quite often it can be something that they ingested two to four days beforehand,” said Bauer.
“But if somebody has gone to the farmers market this morning and this afternoon they get sick … they’re going to assume it could be something that they ate from the farmers market. That’s why it’s important to just do what you can to protect yourself.”
She said farmers market managers should contact their local health inspector before the first market of the season start to ensure all regulations are followed.