July 26, 2014

Shopping at a Farmers Market This Weekend? Buyer Beware.

Farmers markets are booming. In the last 40 years, farmers markets around the country have grown by 2000% as demand for local foods has increased. Farmers markets generating at least $1.3 billion in consumer spending every year. We all know that foods purchased directly from the farmer are fresher, taste better, and are more nutritious. But how safe are those foods?

State and local laws about these temporary establishments vary, since each state has its own farmers market regulations. Some vendors are completely exempt from health department inspections, others sell food prepared in uninspected homes, and some farmers markets are inspected by authorities.

A study published in Food Protection Trends found that food safety behaviors by vendors at farmers markets are inconsistent at best. Researchers observed eighteen employees at Indiana farmers’ markets using their Smartphones. They looked at food handling transactions, compiling data on 900 of them. They were looking for hand washing and glove usage, two methods that help reduce the spread of pathogens that cause foodborne illness.

Researchers found that food safety behaviors were very inconsistent, which means there is an increased risk of foodborne illness. The more tasks an employee performed, the more likely he was to violate food safety procedures.

This research is consistent with research conducted last year by Alison Smathers, a masters student at North Carolina State University. Her research resulted in the development of Good Farmers Market Practices, training materials from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. The program focuses on food safety and high risk foods, such as raw meats and poultry, sprouts, cut melons, garlic-in-oil mixtures, and low acid foods. It also stresses the necessity of handwashing stations and proper glove use at farmers markets and recommends the best practices for safely offering samples to customers.

The Farmers Market Coalition also provides food safety information for vendors, including training curriculum, recommendations, market manuals, and food safety vendor guides. They are all free for downloading.

So the next time you’re at a farmers market, ask vendors about their handwashing practices. Ask how perishable items have been stored, if they have been kept chilled at correct temperatures (below 40 degrees F) and how canned foods were prepared. Vendors should have complete and satisfactory answers to these questions. If they don’t, move on to the next booth!

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