From the duh files: ‘People are being duped’ at Canadian farmers markets

Some farmers market vendors push bogus homegrown stories to consumers looking for fresh local fruits and veggies — and Marketplace has the hidden camera footage to prove it.

The Marketplace team went undercover at 11 bustling markets across Ontario this summer to ask vendors where their produce comes from and then tested the veracity of those claims using surveillance and other investigative techniques.

The results suggest many consumers could be paying premium prices for produce with fake backstories about where it was grown.

At four of the markets, the investigation exposed five different vendors who claimed to be selling fresh produce they had grown themselves but who were actually cashing in by reselling wholesale goods purchased elsewhere.

At a fifth market, the team discovered a vendor passing off Mexican produce as Ontario-grown.

Most of the markets Marketplace visited had vendors known as resellers, who sell produce they didn’t grow. They purchase wholesale fruits and vegetables from places such as the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto — Canada’s largest wholesale market — and take it to farmers markets to sell for a profit.

When asked directly, many resellers were upfront about the fact they didn’t grow the produce, but others were not.

Lauren Nurse, who farms 6 ½ acres in Stirling, Ont., relies on farmers markets as a source of income. She says this kind of behaviour undermines the industry.

“People are being duped,” she says. “There’s no difference between food that you buy at the grocery store and food at the farmers market if it all comes from the food terminal.”

At the Peterborough Farmers’ Market, one of the largest and longest running in Ontario, Marketplace identified two resellers making misleading claims about their products.

The largest of these vendors, Kent Farms, operates two different stalls at the market. One is run by James Kent, and the other by Brent Kent.

They say they’re third generation farmers and have properties northeast of Toronto in Newcastle, Orono and Lindsay.

They told undercover Marketplace journalists that most of the produce they were selling was grown on their family farms, or was from neighbouring properties.

Marketplace started digging after noticing the cucumbers Brent Kent claimed to have grown were labelled with stickers from a large multinational corporation that grows greenhouse vegetables 500 kilometres away in Kingsville, Ont., located south of Windsor on the northwestern shore of Lake Erie.

To determine where the Kents were getting the rest of their produce, Marketplace followed a Kent Farms truck the day before the Peterborough market.

Long before dawn, the truck drove 100 kilometres from James Kent’s property in Newcastle to the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto. There, the journalists witnessed James Kent and his employees loading their truck with more than 50 boxes of produce including peppers, zucchinis, strawberries and radishes.

At market the next day, James and Brent Kent were seen unloading boxes that looked to be the same as those from the terminal. Staff at Brent Kent’s stall peeled stickers off peppers and James Kent transferred vegetables from wholesale boxes to farm bushels.

When undercover Marketplace journalists asked about the zucchinis, James Kent said: “They’re mine.” He also claimed the radishes were from his neighbour “across the field.”

“He buys all my strawberries,” he said. “The last thing I can do is say no to him when he sells me some radishes.”

Brent Kent said he grew the peppers that Marketplace filmed having their stickers removed earlier that day.

‘Believe in transparency’

Both James and Brent Kent declined to be interviewed.

In an emailed statement, James Kent said they “believe in transparency” and are committed to their customers. He said he grows some of what he sells and purchases some Ontario produce at the food terminal because he believes it’s a “benefit to consumers to provide products from other regions of Ontario.”

Marketplace found four more examples of vendors at markets in Burlington, Gravenhurst, Orillia and Toronto who weren’t clear or upfront about what they were selling.

A vendor at the Burlington Mall Farmers’ Market southwest of Toronto told undercover Marketplace journalists that the tomatoes he was selling were from his farm, which he said is called Koornneef. But Koornneef Produce is actually a large wholesaler that only sells produce at the Ontario Food Terminal.

Providing safe samples at farmers markets

I’m all for less regs, not more, and letting producers define and implement best practices. In my version of the Hunger Games, the folks who do the best for food safety tell customers about it win the marketplace.

The best industry groups seek out experts to help them figure out the best way to reduce risks. Others do little, or worse, wait for regulations to tell them what to do.stockpic-produceStand

When our group started working with farmers markets a few years ago we created a strong partnership with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Together, with funding from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund, we developed best practices and engage directly with market managers and vendors through workshops and on-site visits.

Throughout the project, former graduate student Allison Smathers saw some risky practices when it came to providing samples – stuff like dirty equipment and a lack of hand washing. The same factors that led to an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to cantaloupe samples in a Colorado farmers’ market in 2000. Since 2010 the curriculum we developed has been delivered to over 1000 managers and vendors and we’ve got some data that shows it led to some infrastructure and practice changes. All the farmers’ market food safety stuff we have can be found here.

According to the Daily Planet, folks in Minnesota, worried about the restrictive nature of public health laws are trying to clarify their current laws to allow for farmers to provide samples – as long as they are following some sort of risk reduction practices.

Market operators are concerned that Minnesota laws governing food safety haven’t kept pace with the farmer’s market boom. The Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association for the last year has worked with state officials to craft legislation that spells out the health regulations for handing out food samples and doing cooking demonstrations. The result of their negotiations isHF2178, sponsored by Rep. Bob Barrett (R-Lindstrom), which was approved Wednesday by the House Agriculture Policy Committee and referred to the House Floor.

When asked by a regulatory authority, the bill directs people to provide information such as the source of the food or the equipment used in its preparation.

Cecelia Coulter, founder and market manager of the Chisago City Farmers Market, said current laws don’t specify how cooking demonstrations and food samples should be handled at these markets. “This bill is significantly important,” she said, “as it will enable all Minnesota farmers markets, including those in outstate Minnesota, to conduct food sampling and cooking demonstrations without the regulatory hurdles that current policies require but while closely following the existing food code to insure food safety for our public.”

But do the vendors value food safety and follow the best practices?

Amateur food makers need to address food safety hazards

I make some pretty decent family-sized dishes and preserves in my home kitchen. Armed with a digital tip-sensitive thermometer tested recipes and a pH meter I do my best to ensure the stuff I make hits safe thresholds.

But I’m probably not in the norm. 20131104_1383619450555_eng

Just because I’ve got some of the food safety know-how and the tools doesn’t mean I’m suited for large-scale food production just like making a killer bbq sauce or paella doesn’t automatically qualify one to go into the commercial food making business. To get into that gig I’d need to learn how to deal with time pressures and complications involved with making a whole bunch food. The star paella-maker would need to know how to ramp up production, how to cook/cool/transport and reheat the dishes safely. Putting together a safe product involves having the skill to make something tasty, making a lot of it and paying attention to the risks.

In early November a vendor at the magical St. Jacob’s Farmers Market in Ontario, Canada recalled some hot dog relish (above, exactly as shown) due to health concerns. According to CFIA’s press release, Orange Blossom Farm recalled the product from marketplace because it may permit the growth of Clostridium botulinum.

Details are fuzzy (as they often are) but maybe the relish maker didn’t have any data to show the inspectors about acidification or process. Or the inspectors measured the pH of a batch of canned product and saw that it was high enough to allow for germination of bot spores into vegetative cells (which can grow produce the toxin). A hot dog relish producer should know how to control for botulism risks, and have data to back it up. And a farmers market manager/organizer should be checking that their vendors are following best practices.

According to the Canberra Times, new Australian food rules aimed at addressing amateur food producers by requiring anyone having more than five food events annually to participate in safe food handling training have been met with opposition from fundraising groups.

Not content with interfering in fund-raising barbecues, the ACT government’s food safety bureaucrats have turned their attention to school fetes, telling parents they cannot sell their homemade quiches any more.

The government has this month enforced bans on a list of popular home-made dishes, telling parents they cannot sell foods it has labelled ”high risk”. That list includes spring rolls, casseroles or any other dishes containing meat or dairy, such as cakes containing custard or cream.

ACT Health also has no data on food poisonings at school fund-raising events but earlier this month surprised parents running two stalls at one of the capital’s most popular fetes when it blocked them from selling certain dishes they planned to make at home.
It can be revealed a humble quiche lorraine almost undid the well-meaning plans of one of the French stalls at the fete held by French-speaking Telopea Park School because it contained cream.

Humble or not, quiche lorraine (or other dishes) can lead to illnesses and outbreaks if the folks who are making them don’t know what risks to control, how to do it and verify.

Lots of farmers’ markets; food safety still important

On Friday USDA stats folks released an updated estimate of growth of farmers’ markets with an increase of almost 10% between 2011 and 2012. There are various reasons folks say they shop at farmers’ markets: to support the local economy; feel a connection with producers; buy fresher food; have a better selection; and, the perception of increased safety.

Media reports of increased farmers’ market sales of spinach in 2006, tomatoes in 2008 and cantaloupes in 2011 echo the safety thing – pretty well every nationally-reported fresh produce outbreak results in shoppers heading away from a retail store and to the market for the implicated product. My guess is that it is easier to trust that the market vendor won’t make you sick. Because you know where they are if you do. That’s sort of a simplistic view, but might be what folks think. I dunno.

From the Raleigh News & Observer:

Jonathan Johnson can’t slice peaches fast enough.

With his pocket knife and thick thumbs, he peels off the juiciest pieces of fruit to be passed out for free. “Peach? Free sample? Want to try a peach?,” his two teenaged workers chime. Johnson fills one pint-sized plastic bowl with free samples. An empty one appears in front of him.

As he wipes the sweat from his brow, a familiar voice calls out to him (is it saying "did you wash your hands"?-ben).

“What have you got for me today?” says Donnell Johnson, of Raleigh (oh -ben).

The peach farmer grins. He had an answer prepared: “You know I’ve got some ripe ones picked out for you over here,” he says.

“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Donnell Johnson says. “These (peaches) were picked yesterday, and I get to buy them from this man here, who’s just a great guy.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more and more farmers are forming this face-to-face relationship with their customers. Last week, the USDA announced a 9.6 percent increase in the number of farmers markets listed on its national directory from 2011 to 2012. There are now 7,864 farmers markets registered with the USDA, up from 7,175 in 2011.

Over the past couple of years when I speak to market managers and vendors at various venues I tell them that capitalizing on that perception is totally fine – if they can back it up with documented practices. Whether that means someone from the market asking for vendors to employ specific good agricultural practices or requiring vendors to learn about risks and employ strategies to keep pathogens off of their wares. Whatever it is, someone in the system needs to be asking good questions and providing resources and guidance on what should be happening. Some great market managers get this and volunteer what they do – and ask for ideas on how to deal with problems.

For a look at some of the stuff (training materials and supporting documents) my group and the North Carolina Fresh Produce Safety Task Force is producing for market managers and vendors check out our site on good farmers market practices here.


Creating a positive food safety culture at farmers’ markets; training materials available for download

Small or large businesses are not inherently good or bad when it comes to microbial food safety. Nor are those who sell into a distribution chain any more or less safe than those who direct market their wares. A small producer, growing tomatoes, leafy greens and herbs can reduce risks just as effectively as a large producer with $10 million annually in sales. 

What matters more than size or market is whether the producer recognizes hazards and puts steps in place to reduce the risk of contamination. Every business and organization fits somewhere on a continuum between positive and negative food safety culture. The quick tests for where they lie are: can everyone in the business recognize risks they are responsible for limiting, have all the tools to do so, and actually do it. 

In 2010 Allison Smathers showed up in my office and we chatted about farmers’ markets in North Carolina – that the sector was growing and was providing economic impacts to communities. And that a poor food safety culture could derail things for a manager and vendor. 

Over the next two years, with resources from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund, Allison tackled the situation and came up with a workshop and materials designed to move markets and vendors towards a more positive food safety culture.

We wanted to come up with some material to provide to farmers’ markets on how to protect public health and their business but there wasn’t much data on what was happening in the markets when it came to practices. Hard to know what to focus on without knowing the reality.  Allison trained and led a group of secret shoppers who posed as consumers to collect that data and it was presented at IFT last year. That information became the foundation of the training curriculum – which can all be found at The development and materials are all there for public use. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Agents

Here’s NC State’s press release on the material and project:

Food-safety researchers at North Carolina State University are unveiling a website that offers guidance to farmer’s markets on how to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. The program is the first to rely on observational study of farmer’s markets to establish best management practices for food safety.

“This is an important issue for public health, and for farmer’s markets themselves,” says Dr. Ben Chapman, an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at NC State and co-author of the curriculum. For example, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in 2011 was linked to strawberries sold in farmer’s markets in Oregon. The outbreak led to 16 illnesses and a health advisory that severely curtailed sales at regional farmer’s markets.

“An outbreak of foodborne illness can have significant financial consequences in addition to the human cost,” Chapman says. “NC State created this curriculum in partnership with farmer’s market managers and vendors to safeguard public health and protect this growing sector of the agricultural economy.”

The training, which can be found at, addresses food safety issues for products ranging from fruits and vegetables to dairy products. For example, it discusses how to safely offer food samples to customers (hint: use ice) and the importance of hand-washing facilities for vendors.

The guidance is the first of its kind that is based on observational research into current practices at farmer’s markets. The research was conducted at farmer’s markets throughout North Carolina. “By seeing what markets are already doing, we were able to focus on behaviors and facilities that need improvement,” Allison Smathers, MS candidate and lead curriculum developer. “It also gives us a baseline that we can use to evaluate progress in implementing these safety practices.”

The North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission supported the development and implementation of the program, which is officially titled the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Good Farmer’s Market Practices Program. County extension agents are in the process of holding workshops across North Carolina to familiarize farmer’s market managers and vendors with the guide. To date, agents have conducted more than 20 workshops, reaching more than 250 market managers and vendors.

I want to buy food from a market vendor who worries about killing their customers

When I was in high school, nerding it up with some other high school kids at the obviously-exciting annual Ontario Model Parliament simulation, I met Hilary Weston. She was the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario (that’s in Canada) and she and Galen, her husband, owned a bunch of huge food businesses including Weston Foods (Canada’s largest bakery) and most of food retailer Loblaws.

When I met her I told her I liked her bread.

Hilary and Galen’s son Galen Jr, who runs Loblaws now, has pissed some people off in the past couple of days with his (now retracted) comments that farmers’ markets are going to kill people.

I want to buy food from someone who is worried about killing people – not someone who says we we’ve never had a problem. I figure that if they worry about the consequences, they might actually do something about it.

Over the past couple of years one of my graduate students, Allison Smathers, has been working with farmers’ markets in North Carolina to develop and evaluate food safety workshops for market vendors and managers. Market managers, vendors and organizers have been part of the process from the start. But creating and delivering this training doesn’t mean that practices are impacted. Recognizing the need to measure behavior change (and the limitations of relying on self-reported tests), Allison has enlisted the help of a group of secret shoppers who have collected data on current practices and facilities and provided insight into specific areas to focus on. Stuff the shoppers saw, like improper handwashing, cross-contaminating samples and not monitoring temperatures have been the big focus.

Right now Allison and I are in Lincolnton, NC delivering the material to a bunch of extension agents who will be training market folks soon.  The secret shoppers will be back out this summer looking again for food safety practices at markets where vendors and managers have been trained – something Allison can compare to what was seen in previous summers. 2010 data was presented at the 2011 IFT annual meeting (abstract below, poster here).

At the end of the project we’ll be able to either show some changes – or not – regardless we’ll know how well the training worked and what to work on in the next iteration. 

Seems like a much better approach than "trust us."

Smathers, A., Chapman, B and Phister, T.

Evaluation of facilities and food safety practices in the North Carolina farmers market sector.

IFT Annual Meeting (June 12, 2011)

The association between produce and ready-to-eat foods with foodborne illness prompts concern in the North Carolina farmers’ market sector. Since large amounts of produce are sold at farmers’ markets, there is an increased need to protect the farmers’ market sector from foodborne illness.  Considering this potential, we designed a method of assessment to measure the food safety culture and awareness of farmers’ market vendors.  The objective of this study was to observe the practices carried out at a farmers’ market in order to assess the need for food safety training and information directed specifically toward the promotion of good food safety practices at farmers’ markets. The study used 20 secret shoppers, trained to observe and collect quantitative and qualitative data through observational surveys.  During the 2010 market season, secret shoppers provided information that was neither incriminating nor praiseworthy from 37 farmers’ markets and 168 farmers’ market vendors, representing a large sample of North Carolina markets.  The information was provided through observational surveys and results were estimated through analysis of survey data.  The survey data was used to create trends and relationships to assess the food safety knowledge and practices carried out at a farmers’ market.  Our findings highlight the need for food safety improvement in areas such as cross-contamination, hygiene, sanitation, sampling, claims, and storage.  Results provide a need for enhancement of food safety at the farmers’ markets in order to protect the farmers’ market sector from being linked to foodborne illness outbreaks. The overall goal of supporting the growth and health of the North Carolina farmers’ markets will continue to be supported through further assessment and education development.

Small ag, farmer’s markets, conspiracies and trust; show me the data

I started going to the farmer’s market in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, in the fall of 1983. I’d been to other markets, lots of farmers in the family, but for the first time I lived close to a downtown market (right, San Francisco market, 2009). For my third year as an undergraduate university student — what Americans would call my junior year — I had a room that used to be the garage in a semi-detached sorta house and was exceedingly cold in the winter. I lived with a mom and her 8-year-old son, and got free rent in exchange for a couple of hours of child care in the early evenings.

I remained a regular at the market, through to 1988, and enjoyed chatting with farmers, and quickly discovered the best producers were eager and open to discuss any inquiries about their food. When I returned to live in Guelph in 1997, I went to the market a few times but soon soured on the activity. Some of the same producers were there, but the space had largely become a political and gimmick-filled flea market.

There was a new apple guy, who was selling unpasteurized apple cider in the post-Odwalla world, referring to the 1996 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Odwalla juice containing unpasteurized apple cider that sickened 70 and killed a 16-month old in the U.S. He had installed his own microbiology lab on the farm, and was happy to share test results and methodology. That’s the kind of trust I’m looking for.

I’ve been to lots of other markets over the years (left, Toulouse), but find I can get the same shared social space and conversations about food at a supermarket. It’s not trendy, but it’s my experience.

The San Jose Mercury News reports this morning that small, organic farmers like Tom Willey who supplies 800 local families and West Coast retailers with a year-round supply of fresh produce, say stricter food-safety regulations, developed after a cluster of outbreaks of bacterial contamination in spinach and lettuce in 2006, threaten the principles upon which their farms are based.

The story says that Willey already adheres to the voluntary food-safety regulations deemed necessary by the organic farm community. Except organic standards are not food safety standards. Organic is a production system. Food safety is about fewer people barfing.

Trevor Suslow, a food-safety expert and plant pathologist at UC Davis whose research helped form the basis of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, said,

"For the smaller growers, I don’t think it is reasonable to throw up their hands and say it doesn’t apply to us, or we are not the problem or we can never be the problem.”

Suslow also said regulations should be tailored to both the size and the nature of the operation, and that,

"Everybody needs to be doing something, but everybody doesn’t need to be doing the same thing.”

Agreed. I want to know what is being done to control microorganisms that could make people barf on any farm, or anywhere else.

I don’t care if the operation is large or small, organic or conventional, local or global. I care if food makes people sick.

A similar argument is going on in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, where a provincial draft document outlining new guidelines for public markets has created some of the same faith-based arguments surrounding proposed U.S. legislation. One critic said,

"It will only be a matter of time before all farmers’ markets in Saskatchewan will cease to exist as we know them."

Not so, writes the owner of Lincoln Gardens, located in the Qu’Appelle Valley near Lumsden, Saskatchewan, and who sells at the Regina Farmer’s Market and on the farm.

I welcome any changes that can improve accountability and public safety at the market level. I don’t believe that requiring commercial food processors to follow proper food handling techniques will put Farmers Markets out of business. It is not difficult or expensive to set up a private commercial, certified kitchen. And if a vendor is unable to do so in their own home, due to lack of space, lack of financial resources or they don’t own their home, they are able to obtain the use of a certified kitchen at many community centres, church halls or town offices. that doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me. …

"Our farm encourages all consumers to ask their vendor if they are following proper food safety guidelines, where do they bake, where do they grow, how do they transport the products etc. We have been improving our on farm food safety for several years now. Many of you will remember when Lincoln Gardens transported produce in recycled banana boxes! You may have noticed that we don’t do that anymore…we also provide hand sanitizer to customers at the farm and at the market so that they can avoid cross-contamination. We will continue to look far ways that we can improve the safety of your food. It is too bad that not everyone thinks this is important."

That sounds like the kind of grower I could talk with.

Like the best restaurants, the best farmers and the markets they supply will welcome questions about food safety along with a public disclosure system. The best will even promote their data-driven food safety efforts to build trust with a skeptical public.


Obama wants White House farmers market: buy liability insurance, try not to make people barf

U.S. President Obama said on Thursday that he and the First Lady are looking into setting up a farmers market just outside the White House, which might sell food from the White House garden or from local farmers. 

The President said it could give the city of Washington, D.C., “more access to good, fresh food, but it also is this enormous potential revenue-maker for local farmers in the area.”

Obama mentioned the idea while answering a citizen question at a health-care forum.

I’d ask the same questions I’d ask any other purveyor of fresh produce: how often is your water tested and what are the results? What soil amendments are used? And what is the sanitation and handwashing  program for the employees and anyone else who may have handled the produce?

Food porn or food art?

At the Manhattan, KS Farmer’s Market on Saturday, Chefs Bryan and Sarah Severns demonstrated cooking with local ingredients. At their cooking station, you could find an array of utensils, several cutting boards (separate ones for raw and cooked meats and vegetables—no cross-contamination), hand sanitizer, and a three-bucket washing station.

The purpose of their demonstration was to show a variety of recipes with ingredients found at the market. Samples were provided; they were delicious. Since it is recommended to wash your hands prior to eating, the chefs had hand sanitizer available for patrons.

Bryan commented on their cooking at the market as being more of food art than food porn. Both Bryan and Sarah will return to the market for another demonstration August 1.

The City Market’s vendor provides hand sanitizer

A smile came to my face while walking the aisles of the Kansas City farmers’ market. A very nice lady selling oils, jams, and other goodies was wearing gloves, that she frequently changed, and had hand sanitizer for customers to use prior to tasting her delicious dips. My friend and I spent approximately two hours roaming the river-market area looking for various items and this particular booth was the only one to provide hand hygiene materials. Locally grown food doesn’t mean safer food, especially if your hands are dirty; wash your hands prior to eating and after handling unwashed produce.