New (old) rules going into effect for Farmers Market

The “new” guidelines for farmers market vendors in Pennsylvania have been on the books for years, Warren just hasn’t been in compliance.

Act 106 changed the rules for vendors across the commonwealth and now it’s impacting the Warren Farmers Market as well. However, despite only now being implemented, the law took effect in 2011 and those not meeting its standards were violating it.

Under Act 106 of 2010, farmers markets could no longer use a blanket retail food facilities license to cover everyone on their site. Individual vendors were required to be treated as individual food facilities and had to follow guidelines as such. Essentially, the law stopped treating the market as a single facility and started regulating every vendor individually.

Apparently, someone forgot to tell the Warren Farmers Market the rules had changed. Now, out of compliance vendors need to play catch up with the state requirements if they want to continue to operate.

As a result, a meeting with vendors was held on the issue.

“There’s no question they need to come into compliance,” Mary Ann Nau, City of Warren code official, said. “My goal, at this point, along with Juliette Enfield, is to put together a follow-up meeting on how to come into compliance.”

Enfield serves as the agricultural extension educator for the Penn State Extension office in Warren County.

According to Nau, in addition to Enfield and herself, she hopes to include representation from the Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture, a local health officer, a food safety expert and a vendor from another farmers market who has successfully gone through the compliance process at a meeting tentatively planned to be held sometime in November.

“We hope to put together a meeting with all these folks,” Nau said. “To try to help people maneuver through this.”

In the meantime, the changes are the law of the land and vendors need to be aware what is required to come into compliance.

Under the act, vendors selling pre-packaged, potentially hazardous foods and ready-to-eat foods must have a retail food facility license from the state. A retail food facility license from a local or county health department. If a market is located within a jurisdiction with its own health inspections and licensing, such as the City of Warren, it must obtain the appropriate licensing from the local agency.

Pre-packaged, potentially hazardous foods are generally items which are temperature sensitive such as meats, cheeses, milk and eggs.

“They need to get a retail food license from the city,” Nau noted. “That goes for anywhere in the city of Warren that sells those products. We’re not holding the farmers market to any different standard. They’re the same standards we hold for everyone.”

Vendors selling raw agricultural products and prepackaged, non-potentially hazardous foods do not need a retail food facility license. Prepackaged, non-potentially hazardous food vendors, however, must file a retail plan review application with the state.

“Where the hang-up is, is with people who sell home processed products,” Nau noted.

Raw agricultural products include unprepared items such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Non-potentially hazardous foods include items which are prepared but not temperature sensitive, such as baked goods, honey products and canned goods such as honey and jams. Honey products are only exempt if vendors process their own products from their own bees.

However, pre-packaged, non-potentially hazardous foods must be made in a kitchen or facility inspected by a state or local health officer. Such facilities must be hooked up to a chlorinated water system or have water that has been tested safe and must be processed in an area where pets do not have access.

Kitchens where food is prepared must pass a state inspection.

Nau said that in communications with the Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture, she has been told many vendors use a garage or other external building to fulfill the requirement regarding pets.

“You need to prepare things in an area where pets do not have access,” Nau said. “You’ve got to be creative and you have to comply with the law.”

According to Nau, there are no exemptions from the requirements. She specifically noted no waivers or grandfather clauses that can be used. She also said an “eat at your own risk” sign does not exempt a vendor from liability.

Nau specifically addressed rumors the Amish were exempt, saying they were not and that Amish vendors often hold state mobile food facility licenses which allow them to sell goods at more than one location.

“Once you get their blessing, you can sell your products anywhere,” Nau noted. “What they’ll have to do here is get a city license.”

She noted New York state licenses are recognized by Pennsylvania.

“You’re just exposing yourself to liability if someone gets sick,” Nau said of operating without a license. “They recommend you leave yourself 60 days to leave time for application processing.”

Applications for both the retail plan review application and the retail food facility license are available at the Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture’s site.

Vendors for the Warren Farmers Market have until June, when the market is slated to open again, to meet requirements.

“We’ve got a lot of months here to get in compliance,” Nau said. “That’s a big window.”