Growing Controversy

Pima County ponders whether to heap regulations on vendors at farmers' markets

Adela Durazo passes out her salsa.
Adela Durazo wonders what more she must do to make life right with the Pima County Health Department.

When Durazo started making her Poco Loco Specialty Salsas, she says, she took the classes necessary to get her health permit, and then her food-handling permit. Then she secured a commercial kitchen to make her product, something required by most health departments across the country.

After making and selling her salsas for 11 years, Durazo says she always thought she diligently followed health-department codes, and says she couldn't imagine having to do anything else to legally stay in business.

This past year, however, Durazo and her fellow farmers' market vendors have suddenly received special attention from the health department regarding prepared foods and samples. The end result could be another layer of regulation--and another permit vendors may need to purchase.

"For the past 11 years, I've only done business at farmers' markets. It was a perfect match for me and my product. It still is," Durazo says. "We want (the health department) to come. We want them to check, but we don't want them to trouble us about samples and more regulations." Manish Shah, co-director of the St. Philip's Plaza and Oro Valley farmers' markets along with Roxanne Garcia, says the controversy started when the department began to update its codes last year. Farmers' markets hit the county's radar, along with prepared-foods vendors in particular. Health inspectors started descending on markets and issuing notices and citations. "Sampling seems to be the issue," Garcia says. "But to us, we have standards that have always been in place. All of our vendors that sell prepared foods must have their permits, and the products must be made in a commercial kitchen."

Garcia says potential vendors may feel the requirements she and Shah have are strict, but they protect the reputations of the markets and the vendors--and keep customers safe. To add additional permit requirements and regulations is redundant, and could place an unnecessary extra burden on local entrepreneurs trying grow businesses that often focus on farms and homegrown foods.

"That's our interest now. Our customers are interested in organic produce and foods that are grown as locally as possible," Garcia says.

Karen Martin agrees that the county needs to look at farmers' markets differently. Martin, a Pima County Health Department division manager, says farmers' markets have grown beyond veggies to now include prepared foods, hand-crafted cheeses and meats, such as organically raised beef, chicken and lamb.

"Ultimately, our concern is always public safety and food safety," Martin says. "Our concern is that there could be potentially hazardous foods (sold at the farmers' markets)."

In August, Martin says, health department officials sat down with market managers to discuss a possible solution. In Pima County, there are 11 markets, but are not under the operation of one central organization. The markets are usually run by managers that organize a handful of gatherings in Tucson and surrounding communities.

Martin says the sit-downs have been positive and have allowed the health department to cultivate good relationships with all of the market managers.

"We're in total support of the mission of the farmers' markets. But we also have our own to protect the public. If we can help each other do both, that would be the best situation," Martin says.

On the table in discussions with market managers and public-health officials are special-event permits that would cost each prepared-food vendor $48 for 14 days or less, or $62 for 14 to 120 days. Shah says he is interested in discussing a blanket permit paid for by the farmers' markets, and not the vendors.

Garcia says the discussion with public-health officials has also moved beyond permits. Garcia that says early on, she realized that state and county public-health officials should follow the direction of other states, such as California, which has a separate code specific to farmers' markets.

"Farmers' markets are just taking off in Arizona, while in California, they've been around a long time," Garcia says. "What's new today is how people look at food. They want to know where it comes from or how it is grown. Rising gas prices are also making farmers look at new ways to get their food to the public. Farmers' markets fill that need."

Market managers and public-health officials hope to agree on a new code, a draft of which will make its way to the Pima County Board of Supervisors for final approval, perhaps this spring. Shah and Garcia say if there continues to be issues, they are confident their customers will turn out to support the markets and the vendors.

"Our customers are serious about the market and the people they buy from," Shah says.

One example of those loyal farmers' market customers is Marlee Bisbey. She says it angered her when she heard the health department was looking more closely at farmers' markets.

"In my mind, they need to give me a reason why. Has anyone died? If nothing is happening, leave them alone," Bisbey says. Bisbey is a regular customer at Paul and Sarah Schwennesen's Double Check Ranch booth. The couple operate a ranch outside of Tucson and raise antibiotic-free grain-fed beef. They are regulars at the Oro Valley and St. Philip's Plaza farmers' markets. (See "Pima County Health Department Unjustly Cracking Down on Farmers' Markets," Mailbag, Jan. 3.) Bisbey says health problems made her look at her diet differently. Once she changed to a more nutritious and organic diet, her health improved.

"I've been able to get off most of my medications," Bisbey says. She buys bones from the Schwennesens almost weekly to make soup. She also buys raw milk from a small dairy outside of Tucson.

"I feel like I'm losing the choice to ... buy what's healthy for me," Bisbey says.

It's this perspective from Bisbey that supports the Schwennesens criticism of the health department's interest in the farmers' markets.

Paul Schwennesen notes that most vendors already face regulations. "My beef is regulated by the USDA before I even bring it here to the market. In my opinion, there's no room for regulation between a farmer and a consumer."

It's in the best interest of vendors to make sure their products are safe, Schwennesen says. "If someone gets sick, it's my name and reputation on the line, not someone from Safeway. That's why the vendors at farmers' markets want the responsibility. We don't want to give that responsibility to the health department. I'd much prefer to regulate myself."

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