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Weston’s remarks about farmers’ markets

The perceived safety and security of farmers’ markets was been cast under the national spotlight last week after an off-the-cuff remark made waves through food and agricultural circles. “Farmers’ markets are great. … One day they’re going to kill some people though. “I’m just saying that to be dramatic though,” the speaker quickly added. That comment, made by Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston on Feb. 7 in front of approximately 600 people at the Canadian Food Summit at the Metro Convention Centre, has ignited a firestorm of opposition. “We strenuously object” to Weston’s remark, said Robert Chorney, executive director of Farmers Markets Ontario. “That was awful.”

At the time of his comment, Weston – head of Canada’s largest food retailer, which has more than 1,000 stores nationwide – was discussing how to build a long-term vision for food in this country,  how to capitalize on the growing demand for local food and insisting that food inspections throughout the entire food system are critical.

Weston’s comments do raise an important topic of debate, one that is not discussed nearly enough when it comes to the local food movement: can customers be secure in their knowledge that the food they buy from their local farmer has been as carefully and regimentally inspected as the food they find at their neighbourhood Loblaw store?

LOCAL FOOD Farmers’ markets play a key role in the Ontario economy, bringing in $700 million annually, yet the safety of these markets has been called into question following a recent remark from Loblaw executive Galen Weston.

Or are farmers’ markets safer than the big chains? Shoppers may recall the 2008 listeria outbreak that left 23 people dead and resulted in a major recall, which was traced back to processing giant Maple Leaf Foods and a Toronto meat plant – not a farmers’ market.

Markets are big business for Ontario. It is estimated that in this province alone sales at farmers markets total almost $700 million, and for every dollar spent at a farmers’ market, a little more than three dollars reverberates through the rest of the community as anywhere from 60 to 70 per cent of market-goers visit neighbouring businesses on their way to and from the market, according to an FMO study released last year.
The FMO also estimates that some 27,000 people in Ontario are directly involved in preparing and selling the products found at local markets.
It’s no surprise, then, that Weston’s comments have been so divisive.

“It probably wasn’t the best turn of phrase,” said Prof. John Smithers, chair of the geography department at the University of Guelph and whose research has been focused on the societal impacts of farmers’ markets and the local food movement.

“Maybe it wasn’t intended on focusing the spotlight so much on farmers’ markets, but the issue of inspection and food safety is a huge issue for consumers.”
Smithers is also the former vice-chair of the Cambridge Farmers Market, and said that there are strict control measures in place to ensure that food sold at these venues are safe for consumers to buy and serve to their families.
“Those facilities are inspected on a very regular basis, or at least they were when I was there. They don’t publicize when they’re coming, you’ll just see somebody walking around or a couple of people walking around with clipboards unannounced.

“They’re checking the temperature of coolers, they’re checking to see if the sinks are working properly, if hand-washing facilities are in place, and the food handling standards.”
There are more than 80 sections and sub-sections that pertain to food safety standards in the Region of Waterloo, and virtually all of the markets in this region fall under those guidelines, referred to as food premise regulations, which fall under the Health Protection and Promotion Act.

“It’s a very prescriptive regulation,” said Chris Komorowski, food safety program manager at the Region of Waterloo. “You need sinks, you need to keep food at a certain temperature, you need to have certain supplies at the sinks, thermometers for food, sneeze guards, and all these structural things, as well as proper cleaning and sanitation.” In June 2006 the government of Ontario amended the Health Protection and Promotion Act to lessen those restrictions on farmers’ markets. Inspectors would still inspect these areas, but with more of a risk assessment and health hazard approach to determine what level of risk, if any, was present.

Yet none of the farmers’ markets in Waterloo Region, save the small one in Preston, have applied for those amendments, and in 2011 there was only one documented complaint against the markets in Waterloo Region, said Komorowski.

“I guess they see the value in having health inspectors go out to do the inspections, and I don’t think they feel at all that it’s a difficult working relationship and I think that they value what public health has to bring.
“They [farmers’ markets] are treated the same way that any other food premise would be treated.”

Every food premise in the region falls under one of three risk categories: high, medium and low. A high-risk establishment would be one that involves a large number of steps in the food preparation, such as a full-menu restaurant, or one that serves high-risk food such as poultry or meat, and these premises are inspected three times annually.

Medium-risk establishments are sites that sell “takeout” forms of food and have minimal food prep steps, and they are inspected twice annually. Low-risk sites are those that sell items with virtually no preparation, such as fruits or vegetables, and they are inspected about once a year for compliance. “Typically for most vendors we inspect them two to three times a year, and more if necessary. If there are problems we go back and do more inspections, which is typical of other food establishments,” said Komorowski. For the majority of market-goers, however, Smithers believes that the comments made by Weston will have little if any impact on their decisions on where to shop for their groceries and why. Through his research he has determined that regular shoppers at the market do so for reasons beyond merely picking up their weekly groceries.

He says that there is a form of social capital that develops between the local consumer and the local producer, and this connection of getting to know who produces your food creates a form of trust and a social bond between the two parties – a bond that has been broken over the past century thanks to the corporate food system.

“People develop a relationship with the person at the market and a lot of the trade between them is based on knowledge and trust. “It’s as much about knowing the person that you buy the food product from, to talking about the hockey game the night before, and that sort of personal element in the food system is hard for grocery stores to replicate.”

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won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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