July 15, 2024

Loblaw’s Head Galen Weston Makes Off-Hand Remarks About Farmer’s Markets

Last week at the Canadian Food Summit, the head of Loblaw’s, a grocery store chain in Canada, made an off-the-cuff comment about the food at farmer’s markets that ignited quite a debate. Galen Weston said that “Farmer’s markets are great … One day they’re going to kill some people, though. I’m just saying that to be dramatic, though.”

Local foodies immediately jumped on this statement, saying that Mr. Weston was only trying to promote produce in his own stores by denigrating the food safety of farmer’s markets. And the executive director of Farmers’ Markets Ontario said that, “We strenuously object [to Weston’s statement]. That was awful.”

It’s certainly understandable that farmer’s market officials would be angry at this statement. Many local food enthusiasts suggested that the statement was motivated by greed; that Mr. Weston wants people to buy produce at his store rather than at farmer’s markets. But attacking Mr. Weston’s motivations in order to defend the safety of farmer’s market produce is a logical fallacy. Just because other foods have caused foodborne illness does not mean farmer’s market products are inherently safe.

While there have been plenty of foodborne illness outbreaks from processed foods and foods sold through national chains and retailers, organic foods and foods sold at farmer’s markets and farm outlets have caused illnesses (and at least one death) too.

Most of the food that’s recalled is sold at large supermarkets. But that’s because most of the food sold in any city is purchased at large supermarkets. It’s also important to point out that most foodborne illnesses are not reported to government officials.

In fact, the Center for Disease control estimates that for every case of salmonella that is reported, 38 cases actually occur. There may have been many unreported cases of foodborne illness caused by products purchased at farmer’s markets and we simply don’t know about them.

Regulation and inspection of farmer’s markets are conducted by state and local authorities. While the markets are inspected, there are not enough food inspectors in this country, and that number is decreasing as state and local governments cut budgets. Last year, there were 189 “red” (critical) violations in farmer’s market inspections in Seattle alone. That’s just one market out of thousands.

It only takes one ill worker, a few bacteria in irrigation water, or one animal defecating in the wrong spot to contaminate a lot of food.

Traceability is another issue. Not all of the fresh produce sold at farmer’s markets are grown by the seller. Many farmer’s markets are stocked with produce bought from wholesalers which isn’t labeled. And because the food sold at farmer’s markets is in such small quantities, it’s difficult to trace the source and to get a sample of the food for testing after an illness occurs.

When you do shop at farmer’s markets and farm stands, you may get fresher food. You’ll have a lovely time; these markets are fascinating. You can speak directly to the farmer. And you can sample some delicious and interesting food. But there’s no guarantee it’s completely safe. The government has some special food safety rules for farmer’s market purchases.

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