Are farm dinners really a public health threat?

Are farm dinners really a public health threat?

Foodies have been flocking to farm dinners. Now, the dinners are getting government attention, too. Will a Colorado county's rules set a standard of permission rather than prohibition?

Farm-to-fork dinners have sprouted wildly from California wine country to Colorado’s ski country USA to the more rugged countrysides of America. Most of the beautiful dinners pass in pastoral peace, but others have pit farm independence against government regulation.

The events featuring local foods right in the field where they may have grown, have increasingly captured the attention of foodies, locavores and others with a penchant for the often pricey picnics. But host farmers also have experienced the bugaboos of government regulation as they attempt to comply with county zoning rules as well as local health codes.

Others choose to fly under the radar, especially after headline-grabbing events such as the Nevada dinner in which a health inspector demanded organizers pour bleach over the food to ensure the event would not continue.

Regulations gone overboard?

One Colorado county government, though, plans to set the rules before problems poison the fun and growing business opportunity. Boulder County, a unique place more likely to see such events as tastemaking rather than trouble inducing, is drafting an ag code amendment to specifically allow farm dinners without need for special review permission.

“We’re aware of farm-to-table dinners that are occurring right now in the county, and they are not explicitly allowed,” county planner Abby Shannon, who called the dinners a “gray area” in the current code, told the Daily Camera newspaper. “We haven’t been tested on it either way.”

Boulder County’s draft amendment allows dinners for as many as 99, caps events at six per year and limits them to six hours between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Penny Leff, the agritourism coordinator at the Small Farm Program located at the University of California, has seen such events serve as good fundraisers, raise awareness of local agriculture and help connect chefs to the concept of buying locally. But they have also ended in heartache as health departments have shut down dinners, and farmers have been cited and fined for varying degrees of food-on-the-farm events.

"There’s a lot of serious concern coming primarily from environment health side,” Leff said. “To most farmers, they are going overboard.”

How to keep farm dinners safe

She advises California farmers to partner with caterers who have certified kitchens—even mobile facilities—and to work with health departments and county officials to meet health and county regulations. Cooperative extension agencies across the nation serve as a similar resource.

Joe Russell, chairman of National Association of County and City Health Officials’ food safety workgroup and health officer for Flathead County in Montana, agrees that working with caterers addresses many issues because they must pass local inspections. When farmers move from selling whole foods to putting those items into a meal, he said, that process subjects them to public health regulation.

It doesn’t take much. Russell cites the simple act of cutting cantaloupe. When provided whole to a consumer, all is well. But the act of cutting it, for some, introduced listeria. The act of doing things to foods really shouldn’t be exempt from public health regulation, he said.

Foodies and some farmers compare farm-to-fork dinners to church socials, which most often fall outside of health inspection rules. But the sometimes high-cost dinners bear little resemblance to spaghetti fundraisers.

A legitimate local affair

More concern from both sides will likely rise as foodies find farm dinners a unique way to connect to their food and its growers and more businesses latch on to the trend. Perhaps Boulder’s move might set a standard for other governments to follow.

Most just aren’t there yet, as both Leff and Russell said cottage foods and farmers markets have received more focus as they, too, have grown with the interest in all things local.

“It would be nice to have farm dinners recognized as a legitimate activity,” Leff said.

Such events and their growth are “manageable," Russel said, "as long as we employ good health principles to public health protection.”

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