Stricter food law in Pa. frustrates farmers' markets

Myron Kressman at Trauger's Farm Market in 2002 in Kintnersville, Bucks County,where he was selling vegetables. Some farmers' marketers complain that the state's Act 106 "takes away from the market experience."
Myron Kressman at Trauger's Farm Market in 2002 in Kintnersville, Bucks County,where he was selling vegetables. Some farmers' marketers complain that the state's Act 106 "takes away from the market experience." (DAN Z. JOHNSON / File Photo)

Vendors, whether selling meat or pouring samples, face costly safety rules expanded for consistency.

Posted: May 01, 2011

Spring for Caleb and Patricia Torrice heralds an annual rush of harried baking and packing as they ready nut rolls, apple cakes, and sticky buns for sale at farmers' markets.

This year, though, the Chalfont couple - owners of Tabora Farm & Orchard - are preparing for the weekly market circuit with a few more items on their checklists. You might say they're bringing everything and the kitchen sink.

A Pennsylvania law that went into effect in January places new restrictions on farmers' market vendors, mandating licenses and inspections, detailed package labeling, and cleaning equipment including, in some cases, portable sinks.

While public-health officials laud Act 106 as the result of a six-year effort to standardize food safety statewide, vendors have bristled.

Nowhere has that push-back been stronger than in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, where merchants say local Health Department restrictions go well beyond what the state requires. Some vendors have even scaled back operations to avoid the stricter rules.

Now some counties are revisiting their policies in the hope of protecting their burgeoning markets.

"There's a fear that this has created in farmers' markets," said Caleb Torrice, who bought a $750 portable hot-water sink to bring his stand into compliance at markets in Jenkintown, Doylestown, Lansdale, and Bethlehem. "A lot of vendors have an issue with it. They worry it takes away from the market experience."

The new guidelines categorize many types of vendors - whether selling meat and eggs or offering samples of breads and beverages - under the label "retail food facility." That means, for the first time, many must shell out hundreds of dollars for state and local licenses, keep new types of cleaning and sanitizing equipment on hand, and follow food-preparation rules proscribed for caf├ęs, restaurants, and supermarkets.

In the past, each farmers' market held one license covering every vendor. If a health inspection found one stall lacking, the entire market had to shut down. Now individual vendors are held responsible.

These new rules may mean additional license and equipment expenses for some, but the law should make food-safety guidelines uniform for all the state's retail vendors, said Lydia Johnson, food-safety director for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

"To sum up the change in one word, it's about consistency," she said. "For the first time, we're all using the same guidelines to do inspections on all types of food vendors."

Few vendors would argue with that goal. But some say Bucks and Montgomery Counties have gone above and beyond what's required, forcing them to operate less like small businesses and more like large corporations.

None of the requirements has drawn more ire than "the sink rule."

While the statute vaguely requires hot-water sinks in the stalls of vendors serving unpackaged food prone to spoiling, Montgomery County extended that rule to anyone serving unsealed food - including those offering only samples.

At Telford's Indian Valley Farmers' Market, along the Bucks-Montgomery line, the uproar came almost immediately. The cost of a single sink - up to $1,500 - threatens to overwhelm the annual sales of many vendors, said Pam Coleman, chairwoman of the Souderton-Telford Main Streets program, which organizes the market each summer and fall. What's more, she said, it doesn't make sense for many of the merchants.

Country Creek Winery, a Salford business, would have to invest in a sink if it wanted to continue offering samples in disposable cups at market stalls. Skip the samples, though, and it could avoid the new requirements altogether.

Linda Debussy, owner of Bakers on Broad, had to revamp her operation. She will have to prepackage her breads and rolls, cooked off site, and forgo single-serve items such as Danish to avoid the sink requirement.

"These aren't large-scale food-preparation options," Coleman said. "The only prep vendors like these were doing was pouring and slicing."

Coleman heard so much objection from vendors that she proposed - only half-jokingly, she said - moving the market across the street into Bucks County.

Circumstances there, though, aren't much different. Merchants at Bucks County markets were shocked to learn the Health Department originally had interpreted the state regulations on temperature control for perishable food to mean all vendors selling chilled items needed a motorized cooling device on site.

"That just doesn't line up with the realities of a farmers' market," said Jan Tompkins, president of the Buckingham Township Civic Association, which runs the Doylestown Farmers' Market.

The Montgomery County Health Department has agreed to revise some of its restrictions. In consultation with the vendors and the state Department of Agriculture, it is developing more workable rules that meet Act 106's provisions, including a way for vendors to seek a waiver of the sink rule.

James Maza, Montgomery County's deputy chief operating officer, said he hoped the second draft would dial back some of the more draconian language of the first try, which he described as a "ready, shoot, aim" effort.

"As in all policy things, there's a balance between the needs of public health and the business concerns of people selling the food," Maza said. "We're trying to work through this. We don't want to end the realities of farmers' markets."

The Torrices, though, said they were ready to comply with whatever the county or state decided to throw their way.

"For us, it's just the cost of doing business," Caleb Torrice said. "If it helps the consumer get a better product, then we're all for it."


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218 or jroebuck@phillynews.com.

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