JENNIFER WATKINS feels she doesn”t need to be told that fresh meat must be stored on the bottom of the fridge to avoid cross-contamination.

This, she says, is just plain common sense, especially for experienced cooks like her.

But told she must be, every three years in fact, because of basic food hygiene standards which are being strictly applied by the Women”s Institute”s Country Markets which she supplies.

For 12 years, she has been supplying the markets (formerly known as WI Markets). The treats she”s making in her farmhouse kitchen the day Farmlife visits are destined for the one in Pembroke, six miles from Gupton Farm at Castlemartin where she combines this income-generating business with her role on this busy dairy farm.

The cost of the so-called “refresher” course – about 40 in her case – comes from her own pocket, as does the exam that Jennifer and the other women and men supplying the Country Markets must sit every six years.

CLOSURE FEARS

She is not the only one who feels over-burdened by red tape and fears markets could close as a result.

“A lot of people don”t want the expense and bother of doing a food hygiene course every six years plus a refresher every three, when there really doesn”t seem any need to do repeat performances of what we have already done,” insists Jennifer (pictured).

It can have a particular impact on the older suppliers and those who only sell a small quantity of produce. “When you get to your 70s, you don”t want to be sitting an exam. Some people only sell a few cakes to make a bit of pocket money, and it is not going to be worth their while. Markets will probably close as a result,” Jennifer warns.

She has her own insurance because she supplies other outlets and will carry on because, without the income her baking generates, she reckons she would have to get a job. But she fears she could be among a minority. “I think a lot of the older members won”t bother. When they get to their 70s, they don”t want to be sitting another food hygiene course.”

The markets are regarded as good focal points for communities. “People come in for a cup of tea and a chat, there is a good community spirit,” says Jennifer. “You meet people you haven”t seen for years, there is a really nice atmosphere.” People can sell their produce by paying just 5p to become a shareholder. The market takes a percentage of the selling price to cover running costs (6% at Pembroke Market). The system has served members and the public since the idea was born just after the First World War to help returning soldiers sell vegetables.

Country Markets defends its rigorous food hygiene demands. It argues that it is a reassurance to customers and a guarantee that food has been produced to certain standards. The organisation”s policy is to abide by the rules of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, says director Jean Withers, who bakes for the Kings Lynn market.

“All food handlers, and Country Markets producers are no exception, are required by law to undertake food hygiene training, covering topics such as food poisoning and personal hygiene. We are no different from any other business,” she maintains.

COURSES

Producers must sit a Foundation Food Hygiene Course, tailored to give them an appreciation of the fundamentals of good food hygiene practice, because they work from home unsupervised, she says.

“If they worked in a factory or a food outlet, their supervisor would have to have an intermediate or advanced certificate,” she adds. Some markets pay for their suppliers to take the course while in other areas free courses are available, says Mrs Withers.