Food Focus November 2009

Food safety at farmers markets

On one side of the stall a woman is selling home-made preserves and produce freshly picked from her Foxton garden. On the other, a man is dishing up hot pumpkin soup and bread baked fresh that day.

They are Lorna and Rodger Dix, two of the mainstays at Moore Wilson's Fresh Farmers’ Market in Porirua every Saturday morning.

Trade is brisk. The indoor market is full of people cruising the 15 stalls, discussing the products with vendors and chatting with their friends. Laid back music floats from speakers at either end of the purpose-built shed. The place is buzzing.

The Dix's are typical of the stall holders at the market. They are small scale producers, passionate about their work, and keen to talk to customers about their wares.

While most of us cherish our Saturday lie in, Lorna and Rodger are up before the sun. As it takes almost two hours to travel south for the market, “our feet hit the ground at 4.30am”.

“If somebody arrives late, people joke 'Here comes the afternoon shift',” Lorna says.

A lifelong hobbyist preserver, Lorna went into business making relishes, sauces and jams after her daughter Iolie, a chef, convinced her there was a market for it. It's the couple's third career change after owning an insurance brokerage in Auckland and a bed and breakfast in central Hawke's Bay.

“We're supposed to be retired,” she says with a laugh.

Slim chance of that. Granwick Preserves (a combination of grandparent and wick, meaning a parcel of land) keeps her busy seven days a week, planting, weeding, harvesting, preserving or selling the produce.

A lot of the recipes are handed down from family. Others, like the new balsamic onion chutney, come about through experiment. Patrons at the market are only too happy to play guinea pig, Lorna says.

“They're very quick to say what they like and don't like.”

Farmers’ markets on the up

The busy market and the experiences of the Dix's illustrate the rapid growth of farmers’ markets in New Zealand and overseas. Jonathan Walker, food safety spokesperson for the Farmers' Market New Zealand Association, said the association was formed with 18 markets in 2006. It now has 47 from Kerikeri to Invercargill, with new ones joining every week.

“There is absolutely no recession in farmers’ markets in New Zealand,” Jonathan said. “There is a real interest in shortening the food chain, and developing an alternative food economy.”

At the Moore Wilson's Fresh Farmers’ Market, you can buy artisan breads, coffee, olive oil, jams, paté, sausages and a huge range of fruit and vegetables. All are grown and processed in Wellington or surrounding regions and all the people behind the stalls and simple blackboard signs are the ones who produced them. Those are the rules.

But there are other, less obvious rules. To obtain a stall at a farmers’ market, producers must meet strict food hygiene standards.

Selling safe food, whatever the scale

Under the Food Act, all food producers are responsible for selling food that is safe and suitable for its intended use.

NZFSA’s programme manager for retail sale Chris Hewins says larger food businesses, including exporters, demonstrate this by registering a food safety programme with NZFSA. The programme is based on a system of hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) which examines each stage of the food production process to identify potential hazards, the risk involved, and how they can be controlled to provide safe food.

Food businesses that do not operate with a food safety programme, such as the majority of those selling at farmers’ markets, have to meet the registration requirements of the Food Hygiene Regulations 1974, which are enforced by local councils through their environmental health officers.

“Unless it’s a charity fundraiser that is specifically exempt from registration requirements,” says Chris, “any food sold at a farmers’ market should come from a registered business, or registered premises.”

The regulations detail specific requirements for the premises where food is prepared or sold. A registered food premises must tick several boxes, including having well-constructed floors, walls and ceilings, and adequate lighting, ventilation and workspace. It is inspected regularly by the local council.

A business operating from registered premises must meet provisions in the regulations for matters such as the regular cleaning of food surfaces and equipment, the personal hygiene of staff, keeping food at prescribed temperatures and protecting it from pests.

Chris says that as the emphasis under the Food Hygiene regulations is about the premises, the challenge with farmers’ markets is to be able to turn a car park or a field into a ‘room’ where food safety is not compromised.

Since the food sold at the market will have been prepared and processed elsewhere, it is essential that these premises have also been suitably registered.

The safe transport of food to market is another link in the chain that needs to be well thought-out, particularly for readily perishable foods containing milk products, eggs and meat. These must be stored and displayed at temperatures that prevent spoilage – at or below 4°C for cold food and above 60°C for hot food.

“The risks depend on the type of food displayed at the market. A market organiser should work with the local council to identify the facilities that may need to be provided at the site, while stallholders may also want to seek information from the council to see how they can best meet the requirements for transport and displaying of food at their stalls.

“All markets registered with the New Zealand Farmers’ Markets Association sign up to the association charter. With this, they agree to a range of things, including operating in compliance with legislation,” Chris says.

Labelling rules spelled out

Food sold from market stalls must also meet labelling requirements, which are laid out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (see www.foodstandards.govt.nz/thecode). The extent of the labelling will depend on a number of factors, such as whether the food is being made and packaged in front of the customer, for example, so it is best for a stallholder to seek guidance. NZFSA’s website has a comprehensive labelling guide, with a flow chart to help identify requirements for labelling a product. Go to www.nzfsa.govt.nz, click on the industry tab then the section titled ‘FSANZ, labelling and composition’.

Food labels almost always require clear identification of the food, its batch or datemark, and the name and address of its supplier. The label may also have to include an ingredients list, the proportion of characterising ingredients in the product (such as the amount of strawberries in strawberry jam), nutritional information, and advisory statements about ingredients that may cause an allergic reaction in some people. This information must be displayed on the product prominently, legibly, and in English.

“With the new Food Bill that’s just been announced, the emphasis will move away from registering premises to recognising the good practices a food business uses to keep food safe,” says Chris.

“A business trading from a stall at a farmers’ market will be able to identify and demonstrate the food safety techniques that are best suited to its operation and which ensure the safety of its products, rather than being constrained by prescriptive requirements. Hopefully this will enable greater opportunities for more businesses to bring their ideas to the marketplace.”

Food safety reflects on all sellers

If one stall holder gets caught selling unsafe food, the whole farmers’ market suffers. That’s the word from Farmers’ Market Association spokesperson Jonathan Walker.

Jonathan sells free range rare breed meat products from his Ngaruawahia farm at the Hamilton and Cambridge farmers’ markets.

To make sure food is safe, organisers of the Hamilton and Cambridge farmers’ markets carry out audits of people applying to be stallholders, which are repeated every year.

“So if they say they produce a certain thing, we want to see it in the ground or running round in the paddock,” he says.

If organisers receive a complaint about food sold from a stall, they follow up with the help of an environmental health officer.

Jonathan says it takes time to work out what regulations apply to a particular operation but once that is understood, it is easy to grasp what you need to do to comply.

“As a meat seller, my main concern is keeping the product cold both while transporting and displaying at the market, so I use portable chillers and freezers and wrap the food well.”

His small scale business, Soggy Bottom Holding, would not be viable without the farmers’ market: “I couldn’t make a living selling wholesale.”