But commercial tests found pathogens on raw chickens sold by a Virginia farmer at the USDA market; the pathogens could be harmful if the poultry is not properly cooked, according to an investigation by News21, a national university reporting project at the University of Maryland. The same was true of poultry sold by a Pennsylvania farmer at a Vermont Avenue NW market.
Both farmers were exempt from USDA inspections because they process fewer than 20,000 chickens a year, although farmers operating under the exemption are not permitted by USDA regulations to sell their products across state lines, officials said.
A USDA spokesman said the department has suspended poultry sales by the vendor at its market as it conducts an investigation.
The director of FreshFarm Markets, the nonprofit organization that operates the market on Vermont Avenue, said FreshFarm requires USDA inspection of all meat for sale at the market. Ann Yonkers, the director, said she was unaware that the farmer’s chickens were exempt from inspection and asked him to stop selling them.
The findings from both markets highlight seams in the federal government’s efforts to keep the country’s food supply safe through a maze of federal, state and local laws that can be confusing even for the people charged with enforcing them. They also illustrate the danger for consumers who think they can find refuge in markets selling food grown locally.
Despite the interest in food from local growers, scientists say small does not mean safe. “From a food-safety point of view, there’s no inherent reason why large production is, on balance, more dangerous than a small family farm,” said Bill Keene, a senior epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Division.
Benjamin Chapman, a food-safety specialist at North Carolina State University, said that in some cases small farms may be less safe. “We’re finding that there’s less pressure on a vendor at a [farmers] market to implement risk reduction because the perception is that the product is safe already,” he said. “At a grocery store, growers have all these specifications they have to hit, but that’s absent in the farmers market.”
Tests conducted for News21 by the Baltimore division of Microbac, a federally certified laboratory with locations nationwide, found salmonella in three samples of chicken being sold at the USDA market by J&L Green, a farm in Edinburg, Va.
“Our process as a whole is sanitary when operated correctly,” said Jordan Green, one of the farm’s owners. “Mistakes do happen.”
Green said he had recently noticed his plastic bags of fresh chicken leaking at the farmers market. He said it was hard to keep bags from tearing and, as a result, he was moving away from fresh and toward frozen poultry.