Looking to offer up some products at the local farmers’ market this season? Best brush up on provincial regulations.
“Farmers’ markets in our province continue to grow every year,” said Mike LeBlanc, chief public health inspector with Manitoba Health. “And when consumers go to a farmers’ market they expect safe, healthy and fresh products.”
LeBlanc recently spoke about the requirements proprietors must follow when it comes to preparing and selling products at the farmers’ market during a webinar presented by Entrepreneurship Manitoba.
“Proper food safety practices help to create a positive impression that builds customer loyalty, repeat business and attracts new business,” he said. “Food safety practices also contribute to business longevity, your bottom line and give you a marketing advantage.”
LeBlanc says all foods are not created equal when it comes to foodborne illnesses.
He said Manitoba Health classifies farmers’ market products into two categories, low and high risk.
“Lower-risk food products can be made at home and sold at a farmers’ market. A vendor does not need a permit to sell lower-risk food products, as they are operating under the permit of the farmers’ market itself,” he said.
Lower-risk food products include breads and most baked goods, all fresh fruit and vegetables, pickles, vinegars, jams, jellies, preserves, syrups, honey, spices and a variety of fudge and hard candy.
“Lower-risk food products tend to be more acidic, contain more sugar or salt and are lower in water content. These are typically things that we say are shelf stable versus perishable foods.”
Foods that are a better host for bacteria are considered to be higher risk or potentially hazardous foods.
“Higher-risk foods cannot be made at home and sold at a farmers’ market. They must be made in a commercial kitchen and the vendors selling these products need to obtain their own permits,” LeBlanc said.
Higher-risk foods include products that are made with meat or meat product, fish, seafood, eggs, poultry, dairy, and items such as, cabbage rolls, perogies, homemade soups, pumpkin pies, and anything made with tomatoes, such as antipastos and salsas.
Although acquiring a permit may be an added step, LeBlanc says there can be some benefits.
“Once you have your own permit and commercial location, basically there is no limit to where you can sell your products,” he said. “With your own permit you are not limited to just selling at farmers’ markets. You can set up your own website, sell the products online, mail order, sell to other vendors, restaurants or grocery stores.”
LeBlanc encourages those who may be unsure which category their product fits into to visit the farmers’ market guidelines online or contact their local health inspector.
“We have people coming up with new and unique products quite often and it is difficult for our guidelines to have an exhaustive list of all food products that can be sold. So, if you ever have any questions, it’s best to contact your local inspector,” he said.
Erin Gobeil, who has run Global Market in Brandon for the past five years, agrees. If you’re not sure how your product would be classified, don’t be afraid to ask, she said.
“Always ask, never assume and don’t be afraid of the inspector. They are just doing their job and it is an important job. If you aren’t sure if your product would be considered potentially hazardous, it’s best to call the local inspector and ask,” said Gobeil.
One of the biggest challenges facing farmers’ market proprietors who deal with high-risk products is often finding a commercial kitchen.
“Most people choose to rent a location. This could be something like your local church hall, community centre, arena, curling club, legion or any local established food business, such as a restaurant,” LeBlanc said.
For those on the hunt, Manitoba Agriculture has compiled a list of commercial kitchens that are available for rent in communities across the province.
Those in close proximity to Brandon may have a new option this season.
“We opened our government-inspected commercial kitchen in September of last year. So, this is the first market season that we are going to get to use the kitchen to its full potential,” Gobeil said. “A lot of the vendors in the past have had to use church kitchens, which can sometimes be pricey and get interrupted by funerals and things like that.”
Ashley Sadler, the Global Market kitchen co-ordinator, says she expects the kitchen to be a well-used facility.
“Right now there are a lot of people who are unaware that this facility is here. So I think once the word gets out there, the usage will increase quite a bit. We have two fully stocked stations, two fridges as well as a commercial-size freezer,” Sadler said.
In order to rent a commercial kitchen, you must have obtained a temporary health permit from the health inspector and complete a food safety course. Click here for more information on the Manitoba Health Certified Food Handler Training Program.
Once farmers’ market season is in full swing, health inspectors will make the rounds to ensure everything on site is up to code.
LeBlanc says inspectors will look at the overall site, as well as the individual vendors.
“We look at a list of current vendors and review to see what food products are being sold. We will also visit each vendor and check for permits for those selling higher-risk foods,” he said.
Inspectors specifically look at temperatures of fridges and freezers, ensure food is being contained in proper food-grade containers, and check labels have the proper information.
According to LeBlanc, all food products require labels. For lower-risk products, labels are required to contain your name, phone number, common name of the food, ingredients and the date the item was prepared.
“If the consumer purchases a product and they have concern with it, we want them to have some information to know who to talk to about these concerns,” he said. “If you are selling higher-risk food products, your label does need to conform with Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) guidelines and if you go to the CFIA website and look at labelling, there is a whole host of information there.”
“The labelling with the food is huge. You need to make sure that is right and don’t forget to make sure your prices are visible,” Gobeil said.
She adds that when it comes to pricing, make sure you are not undercutting yourself just to make a sale.
“A common mistake for a lot of people is pricing products too low. Many times vendors are concerned about overpricing. You always want to make sure that you cover your costs, and don’t forget to include the expense of your time. A lot of the people who come down to the market understand and respect the effort that has been put into that product and are willing to pay for it,” she said.
Prior to the start of market season, Manitoba Agriculture will be putting on a few seminars throughout the province to provide further clarification on selling farm products directly. For information on dates and locations, have a look at “Selling at the Farm Gate” courtesy of MAFRD.