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Published August 15 2012

Farmers market growers exempt from many regulations, but food deemed safe

FARGO - The produce flowing freely from stands at your local farmers market is fresh, homegrown and not infrequently delicious.

But is it safe?

Minnesota and North Dakota officials say it is. Inspections are light and growers are exempt from many regulations that apply to larger food producers, but farmers markets draw few complaints for food safety or quality.

“We have an excellent, excellent program,” said Katie Pinke, director of marketing and information for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture. The department administers the state’s farmers market program.

Most of the produce sold at the 50-plus farmers markets in the state goes “field to stand,” she said – meaning it isn’t inspected before it gets to consumers. Instead, she said, the regulation comes from rules about how produce must be grown.

“Every farmer has stringent guidelines for what they grow and how they grow it,” she said, “We don’t have to inspect the cucumbers that go to farmers markets because we know that the seed is safe, and any type of fertilizer and pesticides and anything else they use are safe.”

Produce certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires far more stringent inspections and compliance checks, but Pinke said “very few” of the state’s farmers market participants hold that certification.

Rules are also stricter for meat, which must undergo inspection.

Eggs can be kept out in a cooler or on ice.

Certain baked goods that spoil easily, such as cream pies or custards, aren’t permitted under state health rules.

Pinke said it’s not difficult for the Department of Agriculture to monitor farmers markets because “North Dakota is a small enough state that we know the farmers.”

Regulations in Minnesota are similarly loose. Farmers markets are often exempted from regulations that apply to food manufacturers, said Jan Kelly, a food inspections supervisor with the state Department of Agriculture.

For certain products such as baked goods and candy, the seller must post a sign or label stating the products are homemade and not subject to inspection. The same is true in North Dakota.

Most products, with the notable exemption of canned goods, need not be made in the state. If the seller calls a product homegrown, however, he or she must specify where it was grown.

As in North Dakota, meat at Minnesota farmers markets must be inspected. Dairy products, including pasteurized milk, must be inspected. Raw milk cannot be sold at farmers markets.

Kelly said products sold at farmers markets are by and large safe and fit for consumption.

“I don’t think we have any evidence to the contrary of that,” she said.

Complaints most often have to do with whether a product is eligible to be sold at farmers markets, not whether it is safe, she said.

Jesse Davis of the Minnesota Farmer’s Market Association said many of the strictest requirements have to do with cooking demonstrations and food sampling. The rules, he said, are similar to those for food trucks and carts

Despite the loose rules, Davis said farmers markets have “the safest food you can buy.”

Or, as the slogan for the North Dakota Farmers Market and Growers Association puts it: “It’s all good.”

Kim Wangler, who runs the Farmers’ Market & Beyond in West Fargo, said the rules strike a good balance between safety and letting farmers put their products on the market.

“We kind of talk to the experts and find out what is best for selling certain products,” she said. “You don’t want to get anyone sick.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502