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Producing different rules about sampling

The Baltimore Sun

Ellen Reich likes her apples crunchy and tart, and her tomatoes "bursting with tomato flavor."

So when she heads to one of the area's many farmers' markets every week for fresh produce, it's a ritual and a necessity that she do a little taste-test before buying.

"It's part of the joy of the farmers' market," says Reich, who lives in Butchers Hill and owns Three Stone Steps, a fair trade import business.

So imagine Reich's dismay when she learned, while shopping at the Baltimore Farmers' Market under the Jones Falls Expressway viaduct one Sunday recently, that sampling the produce was now prohibited.

"I was crushed," Reich, 44, says.

But maybe she doesn't have to be.

There appear to be different rules from market to market about whether vendors can or can't hand out samples of food they're selling.

Carole Simon, manager of the Baltimore Farmers' Market -- run by the city's Office of Promotion & the Arts -- says a sampling ban makes sense, for health and safety reasons.

Without running water available for vendors in outdoor markets, there is a worry about spreading germs.

"It's food that hasn't been washed; you've got a knife sitting in a truck, being handled by hands that haven't been washed," Simon says. "It's an invitation for anything to happen."

Simon says she enforces the ban on sampling at her market because she was told to do so at a conference last winter by state Department of Agriculture officials -- and in particular, Joan Schultz, administrator of the state Department of Agriculture's Farmers' Market Nutrition Program.

But at the Catonsville Farmers' Market held each Wednesday at the Bloomsbury Community Center, a handful of vendors interviewed all were unaware of any problem with offering samples.

"When we have our strawberries, people come and pick a strawberry all the time," says Jim Milton, market manager of Brad's Produce, based in Churchville.

Marc Rey, president of the board of directors of the 32nd Street Farmers' Market, says he's never been told to stop vendors from offering nibbles of fruit or veggies.

And neither has Molly Kushner, the Whole Foods employee who oversees the Wednesday afternoon market in the parking lot of the Mount Washington store.

In fact, "someone from the Department of Agriculture was just here," Kushner says, "and she didn't say anything to me about it."

Sampling is "discouraged," Schultz, of the agriculture department, says, but ultimately, it's up to state and city health department officials to make regulations about sampling.

"That's all under their purview, not ours," Schultz says. "The Department of Agriculture has nothing to do with sampling. We're not involved with that at all."

Both Alan Brench, chief of the division of food control for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Olivia Farrow, assistant commissioner for environmental health in Baltimore City's health department, say vendors can offer samples, provided those vendors have a license to sell food -- which market participants usually do.

"You can sample if you've got a temporary license," Brench says. "It's up to the vendor if they want to give out free food."

Simon says she's confused about the confusion.

"They had a slide show and everything," she says, in reference to the winter health conference that sparked the safety debate. "That was a big chunk of the whole day, [officials] saying, 'You've really got to let your farmers know how serious this is.'"

One farmer who is taking the Baltimore Farmers' Market ban seriously is Dave Reid, of Reid's Orchard, which is where Reich remembers being told "no sampling allowed."

After receiving a letter from Simon's office in February that read, "Sampling, this is absolutely not allowed," Reid stopped giving even his best customers a taste before they buy. (Reid does have a license to sell food.)

"Every year, I am 'invited' to participate in [the city's markets]," Reid says, adding that he doesn't want to risk being "uninvited."

"That would be a catastrophe for me," Reid says. "So I want to keep everybody happy and follow the rules."

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