Farmers markets: Inspections infrequent at Lee, Collier markets

This is part of a Scripps Howard News Service and Daily News special report on Farmers Markets and food safety. For the full report, pick up a copy of Sunday's Daily News and return to through Monday.

Farmers markets: Tips for consumers to have a safe buying experience

Farmers markets: Few controls, checks on safety of food sold there

— Bins stacked with fresh fruits and vegetables draw shoppers at the handful of farmers markets and flea markets in Southwest Florida.

But the fresh fruits and vegetables sold there aren't inspected by local health departments, nor by the state.

If there is processed food or fresh fish sold, then the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services bureau of food and meat inspection steps in.

But only a couple of times a year.

John Fruin, chief of the bureau of food and meat inspection based in Tallahassee, said most farmers markets that sell processed food are inspected only once or twice a year because they aren't considered "high risk," as grocery stores and seafood markets are."We get involved where there could be a food safety risk," Fruin said.

For example, if there is a vendor who sells fish, the bureau inspects the temperature of the product and cleanliness of the site. The department's goal is to inspect the "high-risk" vendors three times a year, but with recent budget cuts that isn't always the case, Fruin said.

Vendors who sell jams and honey need to get a permit from the state Department of Agriculture and are inspected at least once a year, officials said. There are several inspectors in Lee and Collier counties whose various duties include inspecting the food sold at farmers markets and flea markets.

"We are inspected annually by the Department of Agriculture," said Pat Kirk, owner of Captain Kirk's Stone Crabs in Naples, which sells primarily locally caught seafood Saturday mornings at the Third Street Farmers Market in Naples.

Kirk, who has been a vendor at the downtown farmers market for 18 years, explained that there are rules and regulations that vendors have to follow.

For years there were no inspections, Kirk said, but once the farmers markets became so popular, "somebody needed to watch out and make sure food is being prepared in the proper fashion so people don't get sick."

She, like other vendors, are required to have a mobile food vendor's license from the state agriculture department to participate in any type of a farmers market or flea market. Kirk gets her license, which costs about $300 annually, renewed each year.

On a recent Friday, Kim McIntyre, owner of Trudy's Garden, stacked several watermelons and cut the ends of celery at the year-round Flamingo Island Flea Market in Bonita Springs.

Linda Abernathie, who has been buying produce for more than 10 years at markets, said the produce is much fresher and at better prices than in grocery stores. But she was surprised to learn that produce sold at local markets isn't inspected.

"I guess I never thought about that, but I know these are always good here and this is where I always come," she said.

McIntyre, who has been a vendor at the flea market for seven years, said the produce that he buys is inspected at the farm in Plant City, near Tampa.

Eldridge Rolle, owner of Eldridge Produce, sells local produce, fresh herbs and honey at two local markets during the summer. And he shares recipes with his customers.

Vendors who sell jams and honey need to get a permit from the state Department of Agriculture and are inspected at least once a year, officials said. There are several inspectors in Lee and Collier counties whose various duties include inspecting the food sold at farmers markets and flea markets.

"I'm promoting a healthy living and a healthy lifestyle," he said.

Rolle said he gets his produce from Immokalee farms that already are approved by the Department of Agriculture.

During the summer, Eldridge Produce sets up at the 10-vendor Collier County Government Complex Farmers Market, 3335 U.S. 41 E., on Fridays and the Third Street Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Since last year, Rolle, who has a license to sell food, said each vendor at the downtown market has to purchase their own insurance, too.

At Third Street Farmers Market, the number of vendors drops from about 50 to 35 during the summer. The farmers market, in the parking lot behind Tommy Bahamas between Second and Third Streets South, opens Saturday mornings.

In season, Rolle, who has had his own business at the farmers market about four years, sets stands at five farmer markets.

Moreover, Rolle reduces his stands during the summer from three to two spots at Third Street Farmers Market.

Currently, Rolle visits Immokalee to buy his produce twice a week, a dip from his nearly daily visits to Immokalee and Clewiston during season.

"Six months of the year we are busy, (the other) six months of the year we are maintaining," Rolle said.

It was a similar situation at the year-round Fleamasters Fleamarket in Fort Myers.

"We have fewer vendors in the summer and then it fills during season," Marketing Director Linda Steele said.

The flea market, which has about a dozen vendors who sell produce, gets inspected by the Department of Agriculture from time to time, Steele said.

Steele couldn't recall ever having any problem with produce sold at the market.

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Comments » 1

RayPray writes:

Farmer Markets are great for fresh vegetables & fruit.

Take these home a and wash them off.

I don't even look at any of the higher-margined processed meals sitting for who knows long out in the sun.

Baked goods won't make you sick but are often dirty. But any dirtier that the food you get in restaurants?

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