Will stainless-steel refrigerated cabinets, white laboratory coats and throw-away plastic gloves become part of the scene at the folksy, Depression-born Farm Women's Market in Bethesda?
Is the Washington-area institution, which draws people from miles around to buy just-picked produce, freshly killed chickens, homemade breads, partries and casseroles, about to lose its warm and informal atmosphere and become a miniature version of a cold and impersonal supermarket?
Is the white clapboard, one-story building, surrounded on four sides by parking and plunked down in the middle of some of the most valuable real estate on Wisconsin Avenue an anachronism in 1978?
These are some of the questions being raised about the Farm Women's Cooperative Market, which is neither all-women nor all-farm anymore, in a struggle between those who want everything to be just as simple and homemade as in the "good old days" and those who think it must meet 1978 state and county standards for sanitation.
The back-to-grandma's-time faction feels that efforts to sanitize and standardize the market's operations will destroy its character and force some people out of business; the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection feels that the character of the place has changed in the last several years, and that the law must be applied equally to all.
County officials, who have been talking with stall owners for the last 18 months, are expected to meet with them today at the market to spell out exactly what equal application of the law will mean. Many of the owners, some of whom have been there since the place opened more than 45 years ago, are worried.
"I can't see what all the fuss its about," said one old-timer. "No one's ever gotten sick from eating anything they've bought here. I'll bet my kitchen's cleaner than any of those restaurants."
Another was worried that if she had to refrigerate her turkey, "all the essence will go out of it."
A younger woman was afraid that "if we have to quit bringing in canned goods, it will hurt our business."
But beginning Wednesday, one of the days along with Saturday that the market is open, the county says it intends to enforce the health regulations. According to Sharon Martin, chief of the division of public facilities for the Department of Environmental Protection, "on a case-by-case basis, we have alreadly cracked down. The conditions they have at the market are those that pathogenic organism just love. I don't see what choice we have."
That means inspection and licensing of the kitchens in which the food is prepared. To comply a kitchen must have either two sinks in which dishes can be sanitized in a chlorine solution, or a dishwasher with a final rinse water of 170 degrees, which is 30 degrees above normal hot water from the tap.
The women say they would have no objections to a kitchen inspection; the question is whether the cost of complying with regulations will be worth it, especially for the older owners.
Many of them have alreadly made one of the simpler changes: covering the food with plastic.
State law says no one may sell hermetically-sealed food which has not been prepared in an approved facility. So the low-acid canned foods, like green beans, corn and peas have disappeared from sight, but the jams, jellies and relishes are still for sale, and they may be one of the negotiable items at today's meeting because their high-sugar content makes it almost impossible for deadly organisms to form. The low-acid cannd foods, however, are non-negotiable because they are the perfect enviornment in which the deadly botulism toxins can grow.
Refrigeration for foods that must be kept cold and the heating equipment for foods that must be kepe hot are also "non-negotiable" according to Martin. Some stall owners have made efforts to comply already, setting dishes in containers of ice or on thermal ice-filled blocks. But others insist they rotate their foods often enough between counter display and the refrigerators behind them.
The chinese woman who sells egg rolls, moo shi pork, lo mein noodles, pepper steak, shrimp toast, etc., has purchased a steam table since "the inspector gave her fits," according to one stall owners.
A big hangup is likely to be enforcement of federal labeling regulations for prepackaged goods, which require the name of the seller, the weight, volume or count, plus a list of ingredients in descending order of importance. "If I've got to start labeling things it's going to make my life a lot more miserable," said Joyce Berthoud, who sells only prepared foods. "If it gets to be too much of a burden, I'll just give it up."
Delores Neil, whose mother has been in the market for 27 years, said the labeling will "raise the cost a lot." One county health official said the labels could be handwritten and then Xeroxed.
There is a way around the regulations for foods which don't have to be prepackaged: If they just sit on the counter, unwrapped, the labeling requirements don't apply.
Ironically, the issue which finally triggered the county-enforcement efforts was the arrival of a similar market in Silver Spring. It began by selling produce from nearby farms but has expanded into offering prepared foods similar to those available at the Farm Women's Market. As a new facility, the Silver Spring Market must meet all the food safety regulatons.
What's more, Martin said, businesses have complained. "We're getting some criticism from operators who say, "We have to put in expensive equipment; why don't these other places?' It's not equal treatment under the law." Also, Martin said, the market is "more like a carryout restaurant now in a lot of ways."
"Now, they will be like everyone else," she said. "We will try to work out institutional standards. We'll give them a couple of months to comply but if they don't we will suspend their permit. Then, if they continue to go in there, we will have to arrest them."
But, she said, "I don't anticipate having to do that. We haven't arrested anyone in years."