Missing at the market: Health rules keep out home-baked goods, but is that all bad?
Published: Friday, May 1, 2009 - 9:54pm
Gargoyle assistant editor
Posted Friday, May 1, 2009
ONE OF MY favorite summer rituals is to hop on my bike and meet a friend over at the farmers' market in Lincoln Square.
We’d admire the plants, arts and crafts, and fresh homegrown produce. Eventually we’d wander over to a baked goods stall and buy a muffin or sticky buns to munch on while we listened to musicians perform and did some people and dog watching.
But this season’s Market at the Square, which starts Saturday and runs until Nov. 7, suddenly seems less appealing.
In the interest of public safety and in accordance with the Illinois Department of Public Health’s food code, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District's board of health recently decided to prohibit the sale of home-baked goods at Urbana's Market at the Square.
According to the decision announced to vendors in an April 10 letter, baked goods sold at farmers' markets must be produced in certified kitchens with a permit from the health district.
With little warning, the district will actually start to enforce a regulation that has been in place at the state level since 1999.
The announcement, made less than a month before the opening of the market, makes it difficult to find a certified kitchen to rent. The fact that the change in attitude was not foreseen also means many vendors have already paid their market rent and bought supplies.
Fortunately some restaurant owners have jumped in to help. Harold Allston (father of junior Langston Allston-Yeagle) of The Great Impasta has offered his kitchen to some of the home bakers for use after midnight and 6 a.m. on Saturdays.
Sure, the health department has our interest (and definitely its own, too) at heart, but with no complaints about a vendor at the market, what spurred this decision? There seems to be little risk in buying cookies at the market, and if there were a problem, buyers know exactly where that cookie came from.
Can we say that for the spinach or peanut butter or tomatoes or pistachio nuts we buy at the grocery store?
It’s not as if the health authorities in general are excelling at protecting people. In spite of a myriad of food laws, there have been numerous salmonella outbreaks. Not to mention that every so often we hear about fast-food employees spitting on the food they sell, or other fast-food horror stories. (Wendy’s chili, anyone?)
No wonder people want to get away from faceless corporation food. It explains the emotional attachment people have to the homemade and homegrown food to be found at farmers’ markets.
So the anger at the ruling seems understandable. The ruling seems petty (where’s the risk?), and the timing is definitely off (why deny people potential income in an economic crisis?).
But what is the flipside of the argument?
Just because mom and pop seem nice doesn’t mean their kitchen is spotless, that the cat doesn’t lick itself on the countertops, and that the grandkid doesn’t sneeze all over the cookie dough.
Still, I think the “commercial kitchen” requirement is too harsh. Isn’t it better to instead subject vendors to home-kitchen inspections or examine their baked goods — just to be sure there aren’t insect legs lurking in your muffin?
In the end, if you sell products week after week at the farmers' market, you operate a business and as such you should meet at least minimum requirements for a society demanding safety, legal recourse, and in fairness to other businesses in town.