One Saturday last year, I helped out a friend by managing his farmers market booth along with two of his farm apprentices. I like working at farmers markets, and even though I knew Saturdays were very busy, I thought it would be fun. Well, it was busy—so busy that we ran out of quarters to give change, so I left the booth for five minutes to get change and take a walk. When I came back, the county health inspector was waiting for me. This was not what I was prepared to find, and I was nervous, but for no reason.
When you exhibit at a farmers market as a farmer, a prepared-foods vendor or a cottage-food vendor, you can expect to have a visit from your local health inspector at least once per year.
“If there are issues during the inspection, they may be inspected more often,” says Logan Hall, of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Office of Communications.
That word—issues—is what I was afraid of when I encountered my first inspection, especially because I didn’t actually know the rules, rather was just filling in on what I expected to be a routine day. It turns out, every state, county and city has different farmers market vendor rules and regulations. You can learn what you need to know about the rules governing you through your state department of agriculture and bureau of food safety. (The food safety website for vendors in Pennsylvania, for example, is EatSafePA.com, and Illinois has a nice food-safety booklet available free online.) If you plan to sell your wares at an established farmers market, your market manager might also have the information you need to be right with local, county and state law.
After you determine whose rules you must follow, take some of the edge off of your first health-inspector visit with these seven tips.
1. Understand Your Licensing Requirements
If you are only selling raw produce, you might not need a license or to register with your health department at all. There are gray areas, however, and these are worth asking about. If all of the vegetables you sell are grown on your farm, but you also sell peaches from a neighbor or barbecue sauce from a friend, you may be outside the bounds of selling homegrown produce. Retailers of meat—even meat raised on your farm and processed by a USDA-inspected facility—could face additional licensing.
If you’re selling foods you prepared in your home kitchen according to cottage-food regulations or in a commercial kitchen, if you’re selling ready-to-eat food, or if you’re offering food samples of any kind, you probably need a license from the health or agriculture department. In some states, like Missouri, you could even be subject to a frozen-dessert license. If planning to offer food samples, you might need to attend a food-safety class. These are usually free.
“Some vendors—those with only raw agriculture produce or pre-packaged, non-potentially hazardous foods—are exempt from licensing but not from inspections,” Hall says.
Keep a copy of whatever licenses and permits you are subject to, as the inspector will ask to see them.
2. Understand The Health Rules
Because state agriculture departments have certain rules pertaining to meat processing and egg sales and it’s the local health departments that perform market inspections, lines of communication can sometimes get crossed. It’s important to be familiar with what’s expected of you from both departments.
3. Know The Difference Between Processed And Raw
You’d think the difference between a processed food and a raw agricultural commodity would be straightforward, but some states have confusing differences. In Illinois, for example, herbs can be sold fresh or dried in a bundle, and these are considered raw products. If the dried herbs are crumbled into a jar, they’re considered processed. If the fresh herbs are packaged in a plastic, clamshell package, they’re also considered processed. These and other tricky details are what make your state ag laws worth reading.
4. Keep Your Food Cool
Cold food should be kept cold. Hot food should be kept hot. This is pretty common sense, but on a hot day, a particularly cold day or an unexpectedly busy day, keeping up with the temperatures of your goods could fall by the wayside. Coolers containing temperature-sensitive items should have a thermometer in them to show they’re a proper temperature. You should be able to demonstrate that the foods you’re serving hot are held at the right temperature, too.
5. Know Everything There Is To Know About Hand-Washing
If you have your own hand-washing station, be sure it’s stocked and in working order. If you’re sharing a station, be able to demonstrate how to get there from your booth and how to use it.
6. Know What You’re Allowed To Sell
Offering for sale an item that is not legal for sale most likely won’t get you shut down, but it won’t make anyone’s day better.
“If [the health inspector] finds a food that is not to be produced by a limited establishment (home food processor), such as beef stew, they would notify the vendor that the food is not from an approved source, and therefore, they must remove the food from sale,” Hall says. “If they are selling products not produced by themselves, then the inspector may ask for invoices to assure the food products are from an approved source.”
7. Respect Your Health Inspector
Like any officer of the law, the health inspector is not out to hassle you, only to do his or her job. You don’t need to offer up information not asked for, but do be honest in your responses to his or her questions.
In the end, know that your booth will be inspected just like everyone else’s. “Review the information on the website, have current licenses/permits/certifications, and ask questions in advance,” Hall suggests.
On my crash-course in health inspection, it turns out my farmer friend had done just that, and our booth was given the all clear for another year. Yours certainly can be, too.