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Food regulations put small vendors in a pickle Add to ...

Before Bowen Island beekeeper Stuart Cole could sell 25 bars of honey-infused hazelnut nougat at a local festival, he had to tell the health authority exactly how and where it was made and list the ingredients down to the nut.

Then he had to cart his baking supplies to the local school's FoodSafe-certified kitchen to make his supply for the festival.

All that just to sell enough nougat to break even at BowFeast, an annual three-hour community festival celebrating food produced on Bowen Island.

But at least he wasn't selling jam. That would require a lab test to make sure bacteria wasn't festering in it.

"I have respect for what the health inspectors do. To me it's a question of the scale and application of regulations," Mr. Cole said. Other vendors were not so understanding.

Five farmers pulled out of the Aug. 14 event after a health inspector wanted to test jams. All other vendors had to fill out a detailed form on their products.

"Why do we have to fill out a form to sell what we pull out of the ground?" said Suzan Philippe, who had to wrap her lettuce in plastic bags. "I think it was a deterrent for a lot of people. I don't think I'll do it again next year."

The rules have festival organizer Michelle Pentz Glave fearing it may become impossible to separate the state from church bake sales and community festivals.

"It's getting into the realm of the absurd," she said. "This is kids selling chocolate cookies and a few grandmas selling their jam."

The law sees it differently, however. Temporary food markets, from farmers' markets to bake sales, are governed by provincial food safety regulations enforced by local health authorities.

"You are selling [food]in a public place and you have a responsibility of minimum due diligence," said Sion Shyng, a food safety specialist with the BC Centre for Disease Control. "The guidelines are there to add that consistency while a minimum level of protection is offered for public health."

Anyone selling low-risk, home-prepared items, including baked goods, dried fruit, fresh produce, fudge or honey in a public place has to fill out a form listing the ingredients, the preparation process, how and where it was packaged, and a sample of the product label.

Health inspectors can then test the recipes to ensure the pH levels and water content are low enough to prevent food-borne diseases such as salmonella and E. coli. After the recipe is tested once, it can be used in perpetuity as long as it isn't changed.

Some high-risk home-prepared items are banned from markets, including baked beans, cabbage rolls, guacamole, garlic spread, fish, juice and humus.

Mr. Shyng and Vancouver Coastal Health said very few samples fail the lab test, but they could not produce numbers.

For Ms. Pentz Glave, the stringency of the regulations stands in ironic contrast with one of the eat-local movement's goals: establishing non-commercial food sources.

"We are starting to see the first friction between these two systems - the need for keeping us safe and the need for neighbour-to-neighbour, small-scale, kind of nimble approaches that are going to allow this local-eating revolution to happen."

The conflict could be solved with more scale-appropriate safety measures, she said.

"They have a one-size-fits-all regulation and it just doesn't work for us," Ms. Pentz Glave said, adding that it would be more appropriate to invest in education for small-time vendors. After that, it should be up to buyers to decide.

"Let's make the people make their own choice," she said. "Let's just make sure that we have good public education so the knowledge is there to have food-safe practices."

The provincial disease control authority disputes that logic.

"Why would one accept a higher or lower risk just because it's a different location?" Mr. Shyng said.

 

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