I-Team: Farmers market inspections, who's protecting you?

Who's inspecting your local farmers market?

CINCINNATI - Shoppers at farmers markets may want to think twice before buying some of the food there.

An I-Team investigation found several local farmers market vendors in violation of state and local guidelines and some states with little to no inspections performed.

Vendors selling meats, eggs and other foods that require refrigeration were the most frequent violators. Many lacked proper permits or licenses and some didn't understand requirements for cooling eggs or dairy products.

The I-Team surveyed farmers markets all over the Tri-State after public records requests for inspection reports yielded few responses. Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky offer different levels of inspection, from none to rare. While some local health departments aspire to inspect markets several times a season, others inspect rarely.

Our inspections showed most vendors doing their best to comply to the rules, using tissue or utensils instead of bare hands to serve food, labeling foods properly and covering foods to protect from pests or spoilage.

But we also found violations.

Hamilton County Health Department inspector Tucker Stone shut or curtailed sales for several vendors at the Anderson Farmers Market. A pasta vendor operated without a license, no way to wash her hands and no ice in the cooler holding dairy pasta sauces, which were dangerously warm.

Stone shut the booth until the vendor could comply with regulations.

The majority of vendors in Anderson and at all the markets we visited were not violating rules. Most sold produce and other goods, which do no require licensing and have little to no regulation.

"[Produce] is kind of buyer beware, so check for the same kind of things you would check for at the local grocery store which is fresh produce, clean produce [and] produce that does not look rotten or damaged," Stone said.

Depending on where you shop in the Tri-State, your farmers market may have different guidelines.

In Indiana, state agriculture department officials told us the counties are responsible for inspections, while Dearborn County said state officials are responsible.

Several vendors at the Lawrenceburg Farmers Market said they had never seen any county or state inspectors at that market.

In Ohio, the Department of Agriculture inspects semi-regularly.

"There's over 400 markets in Ohio and most of them are on Saturdays and even if we were going to hit everyone on one Saturday, we don't have the staff," said Terri Gerhardt, assistant chief of the ODA Division of Food Safety.

We accompanied one state inspector as he surveyed the Wyoming Farmers Market. The manager there said it was her first inspection in the six years the market had been open.

One reason for few inspections may be that there is no record of any food-borne illness in the Tri-State that could be traced to a farmers market.

"Most of the food items that are being sold at farmers markets are low-risk. There are not a whole lot of hazards involved there," said Jason Channels, an inspector and food safety specialist for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. "Between the state inspectors and the local health department themselves coming out and just being visible, yes that would be enough [oversight]."

Local health departments inspect to check for vendors selling refrigerated products or preparing or serving food. Those vendors must get licenses. But the various counties vary in how often they inspect. Few reach the goal in Hamilton County.

"We are going to try to inspect every farmers market at least once or twice through the season," Stone said.

Frequent inspections by both counties and the state make Kentucky appear to have the most proactive approach in the Tri-State.

Vendors at the Boone County Farmers Market in Burlington say the local extension agent visits almost daily. His office sits nearby.

"There have been a couple shifty little things tried to get by, but it was caught, dealt with and those people are here no longer," said Fay Daughters, a vendor employee at the Boone County market.

"[The] market manager also goes to your farm and inspects your farm and makes sure you're growing what you're selling," Daughters said.

Check your state's farmers market-related food laws at http://cottagefoodlaws.com/.

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