EXTON, Pa. — Farmers market season is just around the corner, but some major changes may be in store for producers eager to sell their products directly to the public.
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture officials have issued new regulations they say will ensure more uniform licensing and food safety standards at the more than 1,200 farmers markets and food stands across the state.
Members from the department as well as leaders from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) held an informational meeting Wednesday evening at the Chester County Economic Development Council complex on the regulations to enforce Act 106, which was passed by state legislators Nov. 23 and became effective Jan. 22.
The act, which Jean Lonie, director of communications for the department of agriculture, said took six years to develop and includes broad changes to food safety regulations across the state, includes several big changes for farmers market vendors.
Among them, all farmers market vendors, with a few exceptions, will be required to get a retail food facility license from the state.
Previous regulations allowed vendors to “piggyback” on the license issued to the farmers market itself. But Lonie said it opened the door for entire farmers markets to be shut down if violations were found at one vendor’s stand.
There will also be new food safety and handling requirements for some vendors, including possibly providing better access to hand-washing sinks for employees.
Vendors who like to sell products at multiple farmers markets on the same day would also be required to get multiple licenses from the department in order to put them on display at each market they sell at.
Each new retail food facility license costs $103 and includes an initial inspection by a food sanitarian. Renewal licenses cost $83.
The complete regulations can be found at www.eatsafepa.com.
Brian Snyder, executive director of PASA, said many of the regulations have already been on the books for years and that it could possibly help many vendors that face multiple jurisdictional issues with counties that have their own health departments and set their own standards.
But depending on the items a vendor sells, it could cost them more money and require them to do more paperwork to even sell their products at a market. And with farmers market season starting in some areas, vendors will likely struggle to get up to speed with the new regulations.
Vendors who sell raw produce, such as farmers who bring in fresh strawberries or tomatoes from the field to sell to the public, would be exempt from getting a license.
The same is true for vendors that sell things such as pre-packaged baked goods, bottled juices and canned pickled products — “prepackaged nonpotentially hazardous foods” as the department defines it — so long as the products were made in a home kitchen that has been registered, licensed and inspected by the state.
But vendors who sell pre-packaged meats, cheeses, milk or eggs, which the department defines as “pre-packaged potentially hazardous foods,” would have to get a license and would also, in some cases, be required to have a sink to wash and sanitize their equipment.
Same goes for vendors who sell “ready-to-eat” foods, such as salads that are prepped at the stand.
Lonie said the new regulations are all about food safety.
“It really is about protecting the food supply for consumers. It’s about food safety from start to finish,” she said.
But Snyder said it is also a good first step in addressing many jurisdictional issues with vendors who like to sell at farmers markets in multiple counties.
Some counties, which under state law are allowed to operate their own health departments and issue their own inspections, have different food safety standards and licensing fees that makes it difficult for some vendors to even be compliant, Snyder said.
“What I heard tonight is an issue we hear over and over again. Ninety percent of the calls we get are about local municipalities that cause the problems,” he said.
Still, Snyder said the regs have a major flaw when it comes to issuing licenses to vendors who want to sell at multiple farmers markets, especially on the same day. The regs state that a vendor wishing to sell at multiple markets can get a “mobile unit” license, which is similar to ones already issued to vendors who sell foods at fairs and carnivals, allowing them to apply for only one retail food facility license.
But vendors who get a mobile license and want to sell at multiple markets on the same day would have to get additional retail licenses to be displayed at each market — copies of the license will not work.
Lonie said the department intends to address jurisdictional issues with counties as well as give vendors some leniency in getting inspected and licensed for the season.
The regulations state that applications for a license must be in to the department four weeks in advance of a farmers market opening, but some markets have already opened for the season. Along with that, she said it could take weeks for an inspector to come out to a market and certify that a vendor is legal.
Snyder said it will take an entire farmers market season to see how the new regulations work out.
“It is a step in the right direction. But implementation is always harder,” he said.
Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition based in Cockeysville, Md., said the regulations and fee structure are fair and consistent with what’s being enacted in other states.
She said the state needs to work on the mobile unit issue.
“I think they really need to do some work on that,” Miller said.