Story last updated at 6/10/2009 - 1:35 pm
Farmers' markets in Alaska are expanding and new ones are forming. Residents of Sitka held three farmers markets last summer and have scheduled six this year. Juneau has set a date for its second annual farmers market. This summer, Haines will host a half dozen Saturday markets to give local growers a chance to sell directly to consumers.
It's clear that across Alaska there is growing interest in the global phenomenon called buying and eating local. In Europe it's referred to as "eating the view," meaning if you enjoy the pastoral view from your hotel or office window, eat local food to help support local farms.
It's easy to see why Alaskans are supporting community farmers' markets. Local markets increase an area's food options, they give regional growers new business opportunities, they generate a sense of local pride and they're fun. But with the growth of local markets comes the need to ensure sellers and buyers understand the state's food safety requirements.
Produce such as leafy greens, tomatoes, peas and peppers have something in common with peanut butter, poultry and beef. They are all foods implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks in the last couple of years. Between 1996 and 2007, there were 72 reported outbreaks associated with 20 commodities. On average, produce outbreaks tend to have greater numbers of ill people involved (48 individuals per outbreak) than from those associated with poultry (30 cases per outbreak), beef (27 cases per outbreak), or seafood (10 cases per outbreak). Safely grown and handled produce is important to keep consumers from getting sick.
On April 2, Alaskan growers met in Palmer with the Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) Alaska Food Safety Advisory Committee and the Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) Division of Agriculture to talk about produce safety. Topics included pathogens associated with fresh fruits and vegetables such as E. coli, Hepatitis A, Salmonella, and Campylobacter jejuni and sources of produce contamination, including poor water quality and worker hygiene, cross-contamination from domestic and wild animal waste, poor sanitation in the packing house or during processing, and even contamination during transport to market or after the produce is placed on display for sale. They also talked about how DEC's Food Safety and Sanitation program and DNR's Division of Agriculture work with Alaskan producers to make sure that consumers of Alaska's agricultural products stay healthy.
There are two basic categories that agricultural producers fall into. Where a grower fits depends on how they handle produce. One category requires growers to obtain a permit from the state's Food Safety and Sanitation program and the other does not.
Activities that do not require a permit from the state's Food Safety and Sanitation program include the packaging and sale of raw, whole vegetables and fruit that are offered in their raw or natural state or after rinsing, trimming of unnecessary parts, or separating greens from roots and that are sold at a farmers market, a roadside stand, or a seasonal event, such as a fair and bazaar.
Activities that do require a permit are the processing and altering fruit or vegetables, with or without washing or other treatment, and prior to being packaged for use by the consumer or a retail establishment (e.g. restaurant or grocer).
The reason the state's food safety program regulates the processing and sale of fresh cut fruits and vegetables is because the act of processing these fruits and vegetables introduces a greater chance of contamination that can lead to foodborne illness. This is particularly important because the produce may not be cooked prior to being eaten.
Even if a grower's activities do not require a food safety permit, DNR's Division of Agriculture offers a voluntary, audit based program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Services that that verifies adherence to the recommendations made in the Food and Drug Administration's Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. These third party audits are being utilized by the retail and food service industry to verify their suppliers conform to specific agricultural best practices.
Food safety is important at every point in the chain, from farm to fork. For more information on program requirements, call 1-877-SAFE-FOOD or visit www.dec.state.ak.us/eh/fss/index.htm. For more information on the Alaska Division of Agriculture's voluntary audit program, call (907) 45-7200 or visit dnr.alaska.gov/ag/index.htm.
Ron Klein is program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.