In honor of National Farmers Market Week, Food Safety News went behind the scenes at the country’s most iconic year-round farmers market to see how it keeps shoppers safe.

Across the country, farmers markets are flourishing. More than 1,000 new venues were established this past year, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan announced last week in what was celebrated as the third annual Farmers Market Week.

To mark the occasion, Food Safety News visited Seattle’s Pike Place Market – one of the country’s oldest, permanent farmers markets – to find out how vendors at this “Sanitary Public Market” keep produce clean for their 10 million yearly visitors – and what consumers can look for at farm stands to make sure food has been properly handled.

According to Rosemary Byrne, a King County Health Investigator, the most immediate safety concerns at a market are ready-to-eat foods handed to consumers on the spot. For fresh produce stands this means samples, which can pose a health risk if handled with bare hands or left sitting out when they should be chilled or heated.

In Seattle, vendors who want to hand out taste tests must fill out an exemption form. “There are a number of rules that they need to follow,” Byrne explains — all fruits and vegetables intended for sampling must first be washed and vendors must keep a barrier, such as a glove, tongs, tissues or utensils, between their hands and the food. 

The Pike Place Market is dotted with sellers, a glove on one hand and a knife in the other, cutting fresh samples from peaches or apples for passers-by to taste.

nosamples-internal.jpgBut it hasn’t always looked this way, says Terry Wheeler, manager of Farm and Food Programs at the Market and head of the Washington State Farmers Market Association.
In the past, she says, “What we found was they’d say ‘We’re not sampling,’ and then we’d leave and they’d sample.”

That’s why the Market initiated a policy requiring farmers to put out a “No Sampling” sign if they are not willing to take the proper precautions for handing out samples, so that consumers will know not to grab berries out of crates or cherries from stems.

“It was a little bit of a challenge for us to get people to do that signage and what we had to do a couple of times was just say, ‘OK, pack up, I guess you’re not selling,'” says Wheeler, “and then they realized that we were serious about it.”

And vendors themselves testify that they don’t take sampling regulations lightly.

“We try to wash everything before we sample it out,” says Nick Dayaran, a manager at one of the market’s year-round produce stands. “That’s our main focus. We don’t want anyone to get sick.”

Another thing market supervisors are serious about is that cheese, fruit juice and other chilled items stay cold enough to keep bacteria at bay. Market coordinators measure the temperature of these foods every 4 hours.

And when county inspectors like Byrne come by, they use an official temperature probe to ensure the food is indeed cold enough.

freshcidertemp-internal.jpgA final concern at any market is employee hand washing, which is crucial in preventing the spread of fecal matter or any other potentially contaminated substances onto produce. For this reason, the Pike Place Market requires employees to wash hands both when leaving the bathroom and also before re-entering their vendors’ stall.

“One of the most important things is handwashing,” Byrne says. “That’s why we have the double handwashing policy to wash your hands after using the bathroom and when you come into the booth.”

She says there are signs shoppers can look out for so that they can tell for themselves which stands are in compliance with health regulations. Each stand should have:

– A hand washing station (including a cooler of hot water, a catch bucket, paper towels and soap)

– Utensils for sampling any food offered in bulk (i.e. toothpicks for sampling cherries) so that consumers don’t touch more than one sample at a time

– Ice surrounding any chilled products

– A separate container for food for sampling

– A barrier, such as gloves, between the vendor’s hands and the food they’re handing out

But no matter how many precautions vendors take at the stand, food can still arrive at the market – and go home with consumers – carrying bacteria, as evidenced by the recent outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 attributed to Oregon strawberries sold at farmers markets and roadside stands. At least 15 illnesses and one death were likely caused by the strawberries, which possibly were contaminated by deer feces in the field.

eggscidermarket-internal.jpgUnfortunately, the risk of getting foodborne illness from fresh foods will never be zero, regardless of whether consumers wash the produce at home, says Bill Keene, senior epidemiologist at Oregon’s Department of Public Health.

There is “no connection that we know of (and no data either),” between washing fruit and contracting infections, said Keene in an e-mailed statement. “I wouldn’t expect washing to do much of anything microbiological — bugs are kind of bound in biofilm or otherwise pretty tough to knock off with a stream of tap water. Chance is your best protection for raw produce.”

However, such risk is not specific to farmers markets but is inherent with fresh produce anywhere, as Merrigan pointed out during a conference last week. “We have a lot of food safety issues in this country that need to be dealt with,” she said, “and I don’t see that there is a particular array of issues around farmers markets any more than anywhere else.”

The Oregon strawberries raised another concern, because health authorities investigating the E. coli outbreak discovered that several vendors had purchased the berries and were reselling them  as their own. That’s not allowed in Oregon, and in other states as well, and complicated the trace back the strawberries to find the source of the contamination. 

For most of the farmers who sell produce at Pike Place, however, direct sales are the rule. Only the year-’round, permanent produce sellers are allowed to source from all over the country, or import produce from places like Mexico. Larry Smith, a complicance officer with King County’s Food and Facilities Program, says that vendors are required to keep their purchase receipts for these orders for up to a year.

All seasonal vendors (those without a lease and a permanent stall) are required to sell only produce they have grown themselves. And the market holds them to this.

 “We try to do a farm inspection at every farm,” says Wheeler, “usually shortly after they come here and then periodically afterwards.”

And Dayaran, one of the permanent vendors, says he knows where everything in his stand is grown, or the wholesaler he purchased it from.

“All our berries right now are coming out of Eastern Washington or the Skagit Valley,” he says, gesturing toward a pile of cherries and then crates of blueberries and raspberries.

To find your local farmers market, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farmers market locator, available here.

Photos by Olivia Marler