What's With All the Rules at the Farmers Markets?

What’s with All the Rules at the Farmers Markets?

Enforcing ‘The Rules’ at the farmers markets is a tough task for staff and vendors alike. Customers may not be aware of the daunting list of regulations we must follow, and it sometimes leads to awkward moments for both vendors and customers. Here’s a brief overview of some of the common issues we need to deal with regularly at the farmers markets.

No Animals Allowed
With the exception of service animals, dogs, cats, birds, and other animals are not allowed at farmers markets in the state of California.

Cute Dog White Toy Poodle with Chihuahua being pushed in a strolDespite signs posted prohibiting pets around the perimeter of the market, MBCFM executive director Catherine Barr said that she has noticed visitors to the markets arriving with their pets in tow, tucked into purses, or even in baby strollers, requiring her staff to intervene and inform them that pets are prohibited.

Certified Farmers Markets are permitted Food Facilities and California Health and Safety Code stipulates that “customers shall not bring any live animals into any food facility” with the exception of service animals. [California Health and Safety Code 114259.5].

“While service animals are definitely welcomed, we ask our customers to leave their pets at home,” said Barr, who has two dogs of her own. “As a dog lover and owner myself, I know my pets would be more comfortable at home.

“There is a time and a place to bring your animal — the farmers market is not one of them because having animals around food violates county health codes,” she continued. “When dogs come into a booth, they sniff the produce. The produce can’t be sold if that happens.” Incidents of dogs marking tables and buckets with their scent (or worse) have been reported.

“There are also other safety issues to consider. We have many families with small children in attendance — I’ve seen dogs bite children, as well as aggressive dogs go after each other. We want everyone to have an enjoyable time at the farmers market, and not worry about their safety, so please keep your pets at home.”

No, We Can’t Fill (or Refill) Your Cup
MTC with Anne B“We care about the environment and reducing waste as much as the next person,” remarked Annaliese Keller, owner of Malabar Trading Company. “There are some customers who show up at our booth with their own cups, which is a noble gesture for protecting the environment. However, our local environmental health code laws require us to use a clean, unused cup to serve beverages. Furthermore, the cups we use must be ‘environmentally friendly’ — biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable.

“We’re not Starbucks, and at the farmers market, we don’t have the facilities or access to a hot water tap to rinse out a cup prior to filling it or the time to wash our hands after contact with the cup, ” Annaliese lamented. “It’s also surprising how many mugs and thermally insulated bottles that people try to hand us are unwashed, soiled containers.”

“Most customers are understanding when we explain that we can’t fill their personal cups due to the health code, but on occasion someone gets indignant,” Annaliese continued. “One woman recently pulled a dirty glass jar out of her bag, sniffed it, shrugged her shoulders, and then tried to hand it to me to fill. After telling her why we couldn’t use her container, she made some caustic remarks and flounced off. I was so upset about the incident, I called my health inspector first thing Monday morning and asked him to explain why personal containers can be used at some places and not others.”

Like many laws, some of the health law regulations make sense, others are a bit more complex to understand. To complicate things further, some laws are left up to the “interpretation” of the local health departments. There are differences between what one can do at a self-service facility (such as a gas station) as compared to a restaurant, or a farmers market. And within the farmers markets, it matters whether the business is self-serve or full service.

Mike Keller, the ‘chai guy’ added, “As a food business, we are required to serve and store food and beverages at the optimum temperature, as well as provide protection from contamination. We take our responsibility for food safety very seriously. It’s more difficult to do these things well at an event or farmers market. Our ‘facilities’ at events are makeshift at best and we’re limited by what we can do from that perspective. Since we often sample our beverages to new customers, we must be ‘in control’ of the beverage containers. Self-serve is not an option for us.”

Here’s a link to the California Health and Safety Code regarding refillable containers.

We all enjoy discovering what something tastes like and many vendors provide samples of their products or produce for customers to try. The health department has strict guidelines vendors must follow about how to sample products safely.

While most understand the common sense of avoiding cross contamination (i.e., placing a used toothpick or dipping a spoon back into a product after tasting), another small factor creeps in — our little people like to sample too! Parents, keep an eye on the little ones — as vendors, we are very busy during the market hours and while we try to be vigilant about curious children, we cannot watch the kids at all times. If your child has food sensitivities or allergies, please, please, please watch them closely. 

If you have any questions about these policies, don’t hesitate to drop us a line. There’s rarely time at the markets to go into detail about the “whys” and “wherefores” when there’s a booth full of customers, but we are glad to answer questions. Our utmost concern is providing customers with a positive (and safe!) experience at the farmers markets every week.