Amish face health rules on products

Processed items targeted

Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008

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Staff photo by REID SILVERMAN
Amish farmers gather at the Charlotte Hall library each Wednesday and Saturday to sell homemade baked goods and produce.

Amish families that sell produce and other items met last week with state and county health officials to clear up confusion about regulations the families say could keep them from doing business at farmers markets and elsewhere.

The farmers were particularly concerned about processing licenses that could cost them hundreds and even thousands of dollars, and health officials were mostly concerned about the sale of pickled products made with unsatisfactory well water.

‘‘It was an initiative by our office based on the fact that we’ve had inspectors go into the farmers markets based on inquiries from the state and whether or not all the products offered for sale were legally offered for sale,” said Daryl Calvano, director of environmental health at the St. Mary’s County Health Department, of the town hall-style meeting at the Charlotte Hall library, where state health and agriculture officials and local economic development departments tried to clarify rules for the farmers.

While tougher regulations for licensing and training were enacted in 2004 hoping to prevent food-borne illness, disease and bacteria, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene decided last year to inspect several markets around the state, finding that in many places products were being offered without proper licensing. The agency then hosted a meeting in Annapolis for county health departments to examine the new regulations and reiterate the need to oversee and enforce them, Calvano said.

In recent months, county health inspectors visited local markets and found products being sold without proper documentation, mostly pickled items. The markets voluntarily removed them. While some of the vendors had been working to obtain licenses, the health department decided it was time to bring all parties together to talk out barriers to coming into compliance and clear up confusion about which products needed oversight and which didn’t.

The state health department acknowledged the 2004 rules were too stringent and unrealistic for farmers who found it difficult to travel to Annapolis for an eight-hour course, and that fees were high.

‘‘We realized original regulations were too strict and we rearranged them. I think we’ve made some concessions, too,” said Jody Menikhien of the state health department.

Now, the health department conducts a one- or two-hour inspection at the farm where the products originate, where it evaluates farm operations and tests wells for safe nitrate and bacteria levels. The fee for licensing was also reduced from $150 to $30.

But farmers gathered at the meeting said there continue to be obstacles, especially for Amish families who prefer to stay away from government bureaucracy. There’s also another problem – when visiting farms and home kitchens, many times inspectors found the Amish’s potable water supply was unsatisfactory for use in canned and pickled products.

An Amish farmer, who asked not to be named because of concern for privacy, said the farmers are trying to obey the laws but it’s difficult to keep abreast of new developments. There’s also the high costs of new wells and licensing and the reluctance to change generations-old baking and production practices.

State officials reiterated products that can be sold without oversight include grains, unflavored jams and jellies, unflavored honey, whole fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, pastries and cakes that don’t contain custard or cream cheese.

Products that require licensing through the state include relishes and pickled products, butter, milk, cheese and yogurt and canned products. Canned products require additional training from the state. Eggs must be clean, with no cracks, fresh, labeled and in cartons and refrigerated. This poses a concern for the Amish, who do not refrigerate eggs but said they never sell those more than seven days old. Poultry can be sold directly on the farm, but meat must go through a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified facility.

Each processing license for products sold costs $350. Vendors must also submit a recipe for each item’s different sizes. For example, a 12-ounce jar of grape jelly needs a separate recipe and a separate fee than the same grape jelly in a 16-ounce jar.

Some of the Amish women voiced concerns that licensing the dozens of baked good recipes they use would cost thousands of dollars and lots of precious time.

‘‘Our customers come for the food we sell that doesn’t look like the store-bought food. We’re doing it well as it is, so why not leave well enough alone?” said Amish farmer Uria Yoder, who has lived in St. Mary’s County since 1940.

St. Mary’s County Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) agreed.

‘‘This is good for health. We’ve been eating homemade food for year and years ... and we’re healthy,” Jarboe said. ‘‘Look around here, [these people] are all healthy because they’re eating good food. There’s a lot bigger issues to deal with in Maryland than going after home-baked foods. We don’t want to see the farmers markets squeezed out of business because of catch-22 regulations.”

‘‘The less they bother these people, the better off they are,” said Charlotte Hall resident Walter Kelk, who attended the meeting to show his support to the Amish community, since as a beekeeper, he regularly does business with them. ‘‘Until we get somebody sick, stay the hell out of it.”

Some argued that customers at the markets, just like customers at church bake sales, know that when they buy and consume homemade goods that it’s at their own risk.

But St. Mary’s County Health Officer Dr. William B. Icenhower said that’s not the point.

‘‘We all have the same interest and that is to promote farmers markets in St. Mary’s County ... but also to protect those farmers markets,” Icenhower said, noting it could help prevent a salmonella scare. ‘‘This is to assure people that there isn’t any disease out there without taking any punitive action. The [recent tomato scare] was a mistake [because of the consequences to farmers]. No one’s out to shut down farmers markets.”

‘‘The gateway into the county is this market. That’s the delicate balance, promotion and protection. I want nothing better than to see this market and other markets in the county grow and prosper,” said St. Mary’s County director of economic and community development, Bob Schaller, who helped moderate the meeting. ‘‘You see all the demand. You see the people who come here and walk away with smiles.”

Calvano said St. Mary’s inspectors regularly make rounds to local markets two to three times a season, and officials noted the bad timing for the meeting, which took place in the middle of the season.

‘‘The Amish community is very important to Southern Maryland,” said Charles County Commissioner Samuel N. Graves Jr. (D). ‘‘But I understand the health needs. They are good at problem solving and working together. They’ve done the best they can with the knowledge they have.”

‘‘People came here with fear. I hope that tonight when you walk away, there won’t be any fear,” Jarboe said.

After the meeting Calvano said he believed progress was made.

‘‘Everyone had an opportunity to voice their concerns. The health department stands firm in making sure the consumer’s health is paramount. The health department is willing to do whatever it can within regulations to help them through that process. [We’re all] really moving forward in having more discussions to allow every person to attain what their goal is,” including inviting the Maryland Department of the Environment to participate in discussions, Calvano said.