HIGH STANDARDS Selling food to the public means following the rules and regulations that protect consumers
No farm operator wants a ticket for a public health violation — and public health inspectors don’t want to have to issue them, says Dan Richen, a public health inspector and supervisor for the Drumheller area.
But the public must be protected, Richen told attendees at a recent Alberta Farm Fresh Producers meeting.
“If you’re selling food, you need to know what the regulations are and what the expectations imposed on you are,” said Richen, who works in the Environmental Public Health program of Alberta Health Services.
Public health legislation is deemed to be strict liability legislation, which is different than criminal law. For a person to break the law, they simply have to act in a way that violates the regulations. Food processing, manufacturing and distribution regulations are controlled by three different agencies: Alberta Agriculture, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Alberta Health Services.
“It’s a lot easier to demonstrate why someone should do something, rather than telling them they have to do it because it is the law,” said Richen.
“We use education, consultation and collaboration, but we also can use enforcement. We try to use a variety of tools and select the one that is the most effective. Sometimes enforcement is the one.”
Alberta’s public health inspectors conduct about 180,000 inspections annually, and in 2011, inspectors went to court about 40 times. Inspectors have the power to issue orders under the Public Health Act, the right to enter into any public places where food is sold (including garages or sheds on a farm) to ensure regulations are being followed, and disobeying their orders is an offence.
“Although police can’t enter some public places without a warrant, we as executive officers of public health, have the right of entry,” said Richen. “Refusal to allow us to enter to perform our duties is essentially an offence under the Public Health Act.”
Public health inspectors try to work on a co-operative basis and will often call ahead if they are going to inspect a small, farm-based operation. Richen encouraged new operators to develop a business plan and contact their local public health inspector with their plan to deal with specifics. Working areas on a farm operation need to be approved by public health inspectors before renovations occur, he added.
“You must set aside an area that is completely separate from all other activities for all processing, packaging and storage,” he said.
Giving any food product to someone outside the immediate family counts as distribution.
Producers who are in the business of selling or processing meat are considered commercial food operators and must comply with appropriate food regulations. All food must come from an approved source, and is subject to inspection by a regulatory agency. Meat sold to the public must be inspected and prepared in a place that has a food-handling permit and if stored on a producer’s operation and sold to the public, that area must also be inspected and given a permit.
Richen recommended producers date their processed meats. He noted frozen meats must be kept frozen and fresh meat must be stored under 4 C, so the temperature of the freezer or fridge should be checked regularly. As well, transportation of food products over long distances is regulated and permits are required. Richen recommends producers obtain mechanical refrigeration units for long-distance travel.
Food sold at farmers’ markets is given special consideration and falls under different regulations. Public markets, even when called farmers’ markets, are not approved by Alberta Agriculture and have different regulations and permit requirements.
“If you’re selling meat products, make sure you check that a place that calls itself a farmers’ market is actually an Alberta Agriculture-approved market,” he said. “A public market is actually just a shopping mall. It’s a bunch of vendors in one area.”