Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Samples and chef demos to be allowed at farmers markets

Are you ready to get a taste of spring in the Mid-South?  This year, vendors at farmers markets in Memphis and Shelby County will be allowed to offer free samples of their products.  While being able to taste a strawberry or cherry tomato may seem insignificant, this simple change has the potential to really benefit both farmers and consumers.

Why is this so important?  "Local farmers sell on taste, " says Melissa Petersen, editor of Edible Memphis Magazine.  "While grocery store varieties are selected for uniformity, mechanization, and ability to stand up to shipping, local farmers chose varieties based largely on flavor and how well they grow in our soil and climate." Consumers might not be familiar with the varieties that grow well here. Farmers’ market produce is picked at the peak of ripeness and arrives very fresh at the market.  Farmers’ market shoppers may not be willing to shell out their grocery money for a purple carrot, or one of the dozens of tomato varieties, or a candy-cane beet, or tat-soi greens without a taste.   Allowing shoppers to try before they buy will increase shopper confidence in their purchases, thereby increasing sales for farmers — a win-win situation for improving access to healthy food, sustaining our regional farm base, and, ultimately, ensuring our local and regional food security.  

Chef demonstrations will be exempt from permitting as well, meaning that markets will not be limited to how many demonstrations they can offer and they will not have to pay a permit fee.  The only caveat is that the food offered for sampling must be prepared ahead in a licensed kitchen and maintained at the appropriate temperature.  The ingredients actually used in the live demonstration must be discarded.  Chef demonstrations are a great way to teach people how to use local and unique ingredients, encourage home cooking, and expose people to healthy recipes.

For Petersen and other local food advocates who have been pushing for sampling at farmers markets for more than four years, this is a major victory.  So what changed?  In October of last year, the Tennessee Department of Health revised the relevant section of the General Environmental Health Manual to "provide guidance... on sampling operations involving foods from a licensed domestic kitchen as well as fruits and vegetables at farmer's markets..."  The revision states that sampling at farmers’ markets is exempt from permitting as long as the food samples are non-potentially hazardous and/or are prepared in a licensed domestic kitchen. Potentially hazardous foods are defined as high water, or low acid, or high protein and include cut melons, cut tomatoes, and raw sprouts.

Changes at the state level are not necessarily a green light for Shelby County.  Food ordinances in Shelby County are more stringent than elsewhere in the state.  Shelby County is the only county in Tennessee that requires that farmers markets be permitted by the health department.  However, in this instance, the Shelby County Health Department's interpretation of the local laws is consistent with state precedent and will allow sampling and chef demonstrations at farmers markets.

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