Amish Bakers Face Food Safety Scrutiny

Wednesday, March 14th 2007, 7:02 am
By: News On 6

PFEIFFER STATION, Ohio (AP) _ Not even temperatures hovering below zero or a foot of snow stopped customers from trekking to Mary's Amish Market for her fruit pies and Swiss cheese.

But state regulators are stopping by for another reason.

The country kitchen and other home bakers in an Amish enclave in northwest Ohio have come under scrutiny for selling meats and cheeses without a license and cream pies and pumpkin rolls without the refrigeration required to thwart foodborne stomach illnesses.

Food safety overseers in several states say they are seeing more people selling their homemade pies, candies and jams. Some are farmers starting up a small business catering to those who want organic foods, while others are just looking to make a little extra money.

The trend comes at a time food safety is getting more attention because of highly publicized food poisoning outbreaks.

``There's a perception that foods that are local are safer, and that favors the local producer,'' said Mike Govro, assistant administrator of the food safety division in Oregon. ``Whether it's true or not, you have to look at each producer individually.''

Customers of Mary's Amish Market are angry that regulators are telling owner Mary Slabaugh that she must conform to state regulations and needs a license because she isn't using the kitchen in her home to bake.

She hopes to work out an agreement with inspectors, and for now, the only change she has made is keeping some items on ice. Supporters are bringing her ice cubes to keep cold the cheese and meat she stores in an unplugged icebox and signing petitions asking the state to let the Amish alone.

``Why should we try to change their beliefs?'' said Earl Sayre, a loyal customer.

The Amish avoid using electricity to preserve their simple lifestyle, and have little use for government intervention and licenses.

About 40,000 Amish live in Ohio, the largest concentration in the United States. Most are in the northeast part of the state, about 80 miles from Slabaugh and her neighbors.

Regulators say the issue is about food safety, not anyone's beliefs.

``This isn't aimed at any particular group,'' Kirchner said. ``It applies across the board to everybody.''

Inspectors have the authority to throw out food products, but such steps are unlikely because they want to work with the Amish, said Dave Zeller, environmental health director with the Kenton-Hardin Health District.

``We're not going to go in and close any of these places down,'' he said. ``We try to help people first. That's why we're trying to do everything we can to educate the Amish.''

Rules vary from state to state. Generally, though, there is more leniency and licenses are not needed for people who use their homes to make low-risk foods such as fruit pies, candy and jelly. The rules are stricter for canned vegetables and products containing milk and eggs.

Ohio doesn't license or inspect home bakers who sell cookies, cakes and breads.

In Michigan and Tennessee, regulators can fine repeat violators of food rules. Tennessee inspectors last year began stepping up their supervision of cooks who sell homemade fruit pies and breads at farmers markets. New rules require those items to be made in a commercial-style kitchen.

``There was a huge outcry,'' said William Morris, a food safety specialist with the University of Tennessee's food science department. ``It virtually closed down one farmers market.''

Oregon requires a license for people who sell food made in their home kitchens.

Farmers markets selling homemade goods in Minnesota are checked once a year, but those sites aren't a high priority, said Kevin Elfering, director of dairy and food inspection for the state agriculture department.

A few foodborne illnesses have been linked to domestic kitchens that sell homemade food to the public. They include canned green beans sold at markets in several states and candy sold by the Amish that led to a stomach virus outbreak that sickened 48 people in Minnesota in 2002.

Around the Amish community of about 200 families where Slabaugh lives and works, hand-painted white signs hang on fence posts advertising eggs, quilts, vinegar, cheese and baked goods.

Slabaugh makes and sells oatmeal cookies, angel food cakes, bags of chocolate candies and jars of apple butter inside a red metal barn next to a pasture where horses graze. Cherry, apple and peach pies cost $4.50.

She's been making and selling baked goods for 24 years and says it's no secret she doesn't have refrigeration. Her cream pies and pumpkin rolls sell quickly.

``They're not here long enough to get bad,'' Slabaugh said. ``It would be different if people were getting sick.''