Tuesday, February 14, 2012

County Health Department Releases Open Letter Ahead of Farmers' Market Meeting

Posted By on Tue, Feb 14, 2012 at 2:00 PM

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Last month, the St. Louis County Council began considering changes to the regulations governing farmers' markets. Clayton Farmers' Market master Deb Henderson has been an outspoken critic of the proposed new rules, telling Gut Check "if [the county] rewrites a definition of of a farmers' market and turns it into a food establishment, then it can be regulated to such a degree that no longer easy [for the market] to be a viable entity."

Today, at 4:30 p.m., the council will hold a committee of the whole to discuss the matter, including input from the public, Gut Check never heard back from Councilman Mike O'Mara, who introduced the bill, but in advance of today's meeting, Dr. Dolores J. Gunn, director of the county's Department of Health, has released a letter to the media clarifying what she describes as "a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about what we are trying to do." The text of that letter is after the jump.

As you may know, the Saint Louis County Department of Health has proposed revisions to the Saint Louis County Food Code to more accurately reflect the way modern farmers' markets operate. We believe this legislation is an effective way to update the code to reflect reality while reducing costs and paperwork for most vendors - all while continuing to protect public health. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about what we are trying to do. Accordingly, I wanted to send out this letter to clarify our actions and what they would mean.

Last year, a number of farmers' markets approached the department seeking changes to our permitting fee structure. Until relatively recently, farmers' markets operated along more traditional lines; that is, they served as venues where local farmers could sell their agricultural products directly to the public, including fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, and cheese. In recent years, however, there has been a trend towards vendors who are clearly not farmers selling prepared food and other products at these markets.

Under our current fee structure, the only option for these non-farmer vendors wishing to sell prepared food products at farmers' markets is the 14-day Temporary Food Establishment Permit. The cost for this permit is $35. Over the traditional seven-month season of most farmers' markets, a vendor purchasing one of these permits every two weeks could be spending up to $525 just to keep their permit valid.

To address this situation, the department has proposed the creation of a new Farmers' Market Vendor Permit, which would be good for seven months. The first permit would cost $75, but if a particular vendor wanted to operate in more than one location at a time, a second permit would only cost $50. In fact, all additional permits would each only cost $50 and the entire expenditure would be capped at $193, regardless of the number of permits an individual vendor required.

Please note: The proposal will only affect those vendors who are cutting, prepping, or cooking food for sampling or selling. It will have no affect on farmers selling raw agricultural products at farmers' markets.

Our goal here was to be progressive and recognize that the traditional business model of a farmers' market has changed. We feel that our proposal is a very reasonable suggestion that has the potential to dramatically lower costs for non-farmer vendors at farmers' markets, while still providing the necessary oversight to maintain safe and healthy food handling and preparation in order to protect public health.

The letter concludes on the next page.

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