Ohio farm markets under new license program

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COLUMBUS – Food safety was not the reason for a new food safety law that has brought hundreds of Ohio farm markets under the jurisdiction of their local health districts.

Now, hundreds of market operators who never had to be inspected and licensed are under the jurisdiction of scores of safety inspectors who have no experience with farm market food safety. But despite the inevitable confusion, the wrinkles are beginning to be ironed out.

The Retail Food Establishment Licensing and Inspection law that passed the Ohio legislature in 1999 was more administrative than regulatory, an initiative to streamline what has become a cumbersome process.

The intent, according to Paul Demico, chief of the Division of Food Safety for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, was to create a comprehensive licensing and inspection program for all retail food handling and food processing operations.

All food service was placed under the jurisdiction of the state department of health, all food processing under the state department of agriculture, and the inspection and licensing authority was vested into the hands of local health districts.

For larger retail operations that included various types of food processing and food service functions, the new regulations eliminated the need for multiple licenses administered by various agencies with multiple inspectors.

But what it also has done, by including even most minimal food processing functions, is to bring most Ohio farm markets under its licensing umbrella.

Demico said the law, which will take affect March 1, is structured around levels of risk, with the kind of license required dependent on the level of food safety risk involved in the processing operation.

Farm markets that simply sell fresh fruits and vegetables, without doing anything to process them, are still exempt from the new regulations. But as soon as the market does so much as cut a melon in half with a knife, food processing is involved, and the market will now require a risk level one food processing license.

On the other hand, a small retail sales operation that sells only prepackaged food items is also exempt. If these two exempt functions are combined, however, if the market has a variety of shelf items in addition to unprocessed fresh fruits and vegetables, then the operation also comes under the licensing requirements.

Level of risk categorization increases through level four, which includes extensive hand contact and factors such as cooking, cooling, and reheating. Level five is reserved for commercial operations that fall outside the scope of the regulations, such as food canning or processing food items for sale outside the operation’s own retail establishment.

There are farm markets, Demico said, that include everything from roadside sales to supermarket-size. The greatest majority of those being inspected and licensed, he said, are falling within a level one category of risk. A few are required to have level two licensing.

According to John Wargowsky, executive director of the Ohio Fruit and Vegetable Growers Society, there has been some confusion at the health district level. Of the 143 local health districts now required to establish an inspection and licensing program, only 72 had been operating under some kind of local ordinances. Most of these were more concerned with food service than with food processing and fresh food sales.

Wargowsky said his members have had some problems with being classified at level three or higher, and with being told they would be required to make changes that seemed outside the scope of the requirements.

Some markets that had been operating with open-air facilities have been told they would have to enclose. Others have been advised that ceilings would have to be lowered, he said. Most of these situations have been resolved.

A few markets will be required to enclose some food processing functions, but for most, no extensive structural changes are required. Open air markets that already control rodents and other pests, he said, will not be required to enclose.

The biggest concern right now, Wargowsky said, is license cost. Each district will establish its own licensing fees, and is allowed to set fees that cover the cost of its inspection program. Some districts, Demico said, have elected to absorb some of the cost from other revenues; others are covering the entire cost with the licensing fees.

Wargowsky said in some districts the license fees are running from $100 to $150 for level one risk licenses, and more than $200 for level two.

The most pressing concern, involving juice pressing, is being addressed by the department of agriculture. New regulations for the retail sale of juice that is pressed by the market operator have been written, and will soon be published.

The regulations will make it possible for farm market operators who press juice and sell all of what they press at their own retail establishment at the same site to fall within a level two risk. They will not be able to pasteurize, and will be required to label the juice with a warning.

If they do pasteurize, they will need a special variance, and will be classified at level five. If the pasteurization is done off-site at a licensed facility, then the market will be required to meet only retail sales requirements.

Juice processors who sell to other outlets come under the direct regulation of the ODA inspection program, and again would require only a level 1 risk license.

Wargowsky said his members would like to see all juice pressing, no matter where the juice is sold and how it is processed, be included in the ODA inspection program. In the meantime, he said, farm market operators who have not yet been inspected for risk level should contact their own local health district to find out about the process. If operators feel their risk level is set too high, the Fruit and Vegetable Growers Society encourages them to ask for a reassessment.

Farm market operators can get additional information about Ohio’s new retail food establishment and licensing program at a special two-hour session during the Ohio Fruit and Vegetable Growers/Ohio Roadside Marketing Conference.

The session runs from 1-3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9. The conference will be held at the Toledo SeaGate Centre.

Preregistration is required by calling the Ohio Fruit and Vegetable Society at 614-249-2424. Registration rates increase after Jan. 22.

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