Esther French, Mattea Kramer and Maggie Clark, fellows with News21, a national university reporting project at the University of Maryland, recently conducted an investigation into the safety of poultry sold at certain farmers’ markets in Washington D.C. Their report appeared in the July 22 issue of the Washington Post. The investigation revealed some unsettling results and appears to indicate that food grown locally by smaller producers does not necessarily mean it is safer.

News21 sent samples of raw poultry to a microbiological laboratory for testing and analysis. The commercial tests detected the presence of Salmonella bacteria on raw chickens sold by a Virginia farmer at the market located outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) headquarters on Independence Avenue. In addition, tests showed that poultry sold by a Pennsylvania farmer at another nearby market was contaminated with Campylobacter. A USDA spokesperson said the department has suspended poultry sales by the vendor at its market as it conducts an investigation.

Importantly, News21 pointed out that both farmers, whose raw poultry tested positive for pathogens, are exempt from USDA inspections because they process fewer than 20,000 chickens a year. Accordingly, the USDA agency generally reviews exempt operations only if it receives a complaint.

According to the News21 article:

The findings from both markets highlight seams in the federal government’s efforts to keep the country’s food supply safe through a maze of federal, state and local laws that can be confusing even for the people charged with enforcing them. They also illustrate the danger for consumers who think they can find refuge in markets selling food grown locally.

Despite the interest in food from local growers, scientists say small does not mean safe. “From a food safety point of view, there’s no inherent reason why large production is, on balance, more dangerous than a small family farm,” said Bill Keene, senior epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Division.

Benjamin Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, said in some cases small farms may be less safe. “We’re finding that there’s less pressure on a vendor at a [farmers’] market to implement risk reduction because the perception is that the product is safe already,” he said. “At a grocery store, growers have all these specifications they have to hit, but that’s absent in the farmers’ market.”

These findings come at a time when public health agencies report that they have failed to reduce the number of Salmonella infections in 15 years, even as other foodborne illnesses have dropped.

Although it is not necessarily against the law to sell raw chicken harboring Salmonella or Campylobacter, those pathogens can cause serious illness and even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.8 million people are sickened, 27,000 are hospitalized and 400 die each year from Salmonella and Campylobacter combined.