Monday, January 5, 2009

Food Safety

Bill Marler, the leading food safety litigator in the country, recently published a list of what he believes will be the most urgent food safety issues during the upcoming year. I agreed with much of what he said, which included risks from the food-borne illnesses which have been the basis for his most successful lawsuits, as well as the threat from globalization and the double edged sword of the digital age, which often gives us more information than we can truly absorb.

But I was taken aback by one item towards the top of the list: local foods. Marler makes the claim that prepared foods at farmers' markets aren't regulated, an assertion that is nothing short of bizarre in light of the fact that it's simply untrue, and also potentially harmful to many small-scale producers like myself who pay through the nose for permits, and follow health department regulations. (Isn't that libel? Slander?)

I can understand going to the farmers' market, watching vendors, and wondering if all their practices are kosher. So many of the steps in the food production process are out of our control these days, with preparation taking place in distant factories or behind the closed doors of restaurant kitchens. It's natural to overcompensate in situations where these processes take place in plain view.

I've had customers reprimand me and tell me that my practices aren't compliant with health codes, when in fact they are. This especially happens when I touch ingredients with my hands before I cook them: you're only required to wear gloves when you handle food after it's been cooked, or food that won't be cooked at all.

When I've traveled and visited farmers' markets in other countries, I've often felt envious of the displays that vendors can create when health codes are more relaxed. I'm also annoyed at regulations that require me to keep cheese at 41 degrees or colder, when cheesemaking was used as a way to preserve milk before the invention of refrigeration. I care very much about food safety, but I'm not sure how much we gain much from one-size-fits-all regulations and a playing field where we've grown so used to the illusion of cleanliness brought to us by hermetically sealed packaging and the indiscriminate use of bleach.

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