CLEVELAND – NewsChannel5 investigators have uncovered a loophole in food inspection laws that allows northeast Ohio farmers markets to go uninspected by state regulators.
We found state food safety inspectors did not inspect any farmers markets in Ashtabula, Lorain, Summit or Portage counties during 2011.
“It’s not any decision that was ‘don’t go.’ It’s just the way it happened with all the markets in that area,” said Terri Gerhardt, the assistant chief of the division of food safety for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Ohio law does not require the inspection of farmers markets, but Gerhardt said state inspectors do attempt to visit farmers markets at least once each season.
“There were quite a few counties we didn’t get to,” said Gerhardt.
Gerhardt said her department has 15 inspectors to cover all of the state’s food inspection responsibilities, which also include manufacturing facilities.
In state reports from markets that were inspected, NewsChannel5 investigators found there were dozens of violations discovered during inspections at 19 farmers markets in Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga and Medina counties during 2011.
The reports show 27 vendors were written up for labeling violations, 27 vendors did not have the correct licenses and 12 vendors were selling “potentially hazardous” products. Most products are labeled “potentially hazardous” because they require refrigeration, according to Gerhardt.
Food products cited for being “potentially hazardous” could cause a stomach flu and can even be fatal, according to Rick Melendez, a supervisor at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.
“It can be very dangerous, because, depending on the amount you ingest, it could make you sick,” he said.
The “potentially hazardous” products found by inspectors included apple butter, zucchini relish and cupcakes.
“There’s a lot of fancy cupcakes now that would have some cream base or butter base that requires refrigeration, so, yes, that’s a potentially hazardous food,” said Melendez.
The inspections reviewed by NewsChannel5 investigators took place at markets, including the Chardon Farmer’s Market, Kamms Corners Farmers Market and markets run by the North Union Farmers Market, including markets at Crocker Park, Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Clinic and Shaker Square.
Farmers markets have become a growing food shopping trend in Ohio and in the U.S. There are 7,175 markets in the U.S., a 17-percent increase between 2010 to 2011, according the United States Department of Agriculture.
There are more than 400 markets operating in Ohio, according to Gerhardt.
In spite of concerns about inspections, there are no reports of anyone becoming ill from food purchased at a farmers market, said Gerhardt. She said fruits, vegetables and other packaged products sold at the markets are considered low risk foods.
Gerhardt said the department has stepped inspections since markets have risen in popularity and plans to continue to do so this year, but she said it is a challenge to visit each market.
“Most of them are on Saturdays and even if we were going to hit everyone on one Saturday, we don’t have the staff. . . so we pick and choose and we go to where we can,” she said.
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