The Curry Coastal Pilot

For the last five years, efforts by local residents to create and maintain local farmers markets have proven fruitful andndash; and safe. Now, the state is focusing its attention on these markets to ensure they don't pose a health hazard to unsuspecting customers.

Are farmers markets really so dangerous?

Oregon's Department of Agriculture (ODA) wants to find out. It is considering first-time regulations of farmers markets and preparing to dispatch inspectors across Oregon (see story on Page 7A).

The challenge is to find a way to balance the support of the entrepreneurial spirit with the public's safety.

Not that farmers markets are hotbeds of disease in which producers are free to do what they will for a quick sale. In fact, according to the state, no one has yet traced a single case of illness to a farmers market purchase.

Still, other states forbid or strictly regulate items that are commonly found at farmers markets. Meats cannot be sold in some; baked goods must be individually wrapped; and free samples are prohibited. There are other regulations, as well, that limit the sale of such things as snacks and cheeses.

ODA Food Safety Manager Ellen Laymon said that any move to change the current system is in its infancy and, in fact, may come to nothing. The first step, she noted, is a visit to every farmers market in Oregon to see just what is happening at them.

ODA may well decide some rules are necessary, and if real safety problems exist, they must be addressed. Worries about meat safety may well be justified, while concerns over individual packaging of such things as doughnuts may not. After all, doughnuts and other baked goods often are stored in bulk in grocery stores, as are such things as artisan cheeses.

Moreover, farmers markets provide news cheese-makers, bread-makers and others their best opportunity to raise public awareness of their products. It seems reasonable to expect the state to have very good evidence that their products are unsafe before making changes that might drive them away.

No one expects the state to forgo safety rules if they're really needed, of course. At the same time, we hope the state will not create new regulations simply because it can. If new rules are needed, so be it; if not, let things remains as they are.

- Wescom News Service