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

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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.

Despite this, as I mentioned above, there has been a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation in the community about our proposal, so let's set the record straight:

- It has been said that the proposal will change food container requirements for farmers at farmers' markets. This is untrue. Nothing in the proposal will change food container requirements for farmers selling raw agricultural products.

- It has been said that the proposal will increase costs for vendors at farmers' markets. This is inaccurate for almost all vendors who would now only have to purchase one permit every seven months instead of every 14 days. The only vendors whose costs might rise are those that currently buy only one or two 14-day permits a year.

- It has been said that the proposal will limit farmers' markets to seven months of operation. This is not true. Most farmers' markets in Saint Louis County currently operate for only seven months or less in any given year, but nothing in the proposal would prohibit them from operating year-round. However, certain vendors at such markets might need to purchase a second seven-month permit once their first permit has expired.

- It has been said that the proposal will create a new requirement that will prevent open-air vending, mandating that everything be under a roof or tent. In fact, this is existing law and has been for years. Our current Food Code (Section 807.201.1) requires overhead protection to prevent other sources of food contamination from reaching food. This is important for public health.

- It has been said that the proposal will create new requirements for farmers that cut up produce for sampling. In fact, all the provisions governing this kind of activity are part of existing law and have been for years. Nothing in the proposal will change regulations for this type of activity.

One issue raised by critics that this letter doesn't address, but that St. Louis County does on a FAQ page of its official website (link PDF), is how these changes would affect Illinois farmers who sell their produce at farmers' markets in St. Louis County:

Illinois Farmers are now and would continue to be considered a "Farmers' Market Vendor". According to current Missouri state statutes (RSMo 150.030), only Missouri Farmers are exempt from fees.

More on the progress (or lack thereof) of the bill as we learn it.

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