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

  • Doc Mudd

    Between hobby farmers, vendors, shoppers and tourists (not to mention a small army of snot-nosed kids, diapered infants and pets at large) by the time your corn husks have all been stripped back, your peaches pinched, your melons squeezed, your berries fondled, your garlic bulbs groped — all without proper refrigeration — well, as far as hygiene goes you may as well be licking the kids’ soccer ball…or the seat in a port-a-john at the county fair.
    OK, it’s a lifestyle choice swapping bugs with anybody and everybody. And paying a premium price to do so — conspicuous consumption.
    My family no longer eats food from farmers flea markets — haven’t in over a year now. We’ve enjoyed cleaner food and saved a huge pile of cash!
    Plus, we’ve burned less gasoline by not having to drive all over the place, and that’s really helped out the environment (and the pocketbook). Plus, and here’s the real advantage, we haven’t had any episodes of food poisoning at home since we stopped consuming hobby farm food from farmers flea markets. No cramps, no diarrhea, no puking kids!!!
    Simply amazing, the serious cash we’ve saved by not pissing it away on $5 heirloom tomatoes and $8/dz eggs and $3/lb carrots…and emergency room visits and diarrhea medicine!—except-when-it-is-not-the-food-they-grew/

  • Thank you, Ms. Goetz, for a look into the state, local, and self-imposed sanitation guidelines and traceability mechanisms in place at farmers markets and public markets. The Farmers Market Coalition provides a number of resources for farmers markets on reducing the risk of microbial contamination on its Market Manager FAQ page:

  • Nancy

    Thanks for informing the public on the amount of work it is to provide samples. Our small farm cannot provide enough output to handle all the samples we would have to hand out so we rely on our “look” and “aroma” and our regular customers “word of mouth” advertising. People have no idea what farmers must go through to get their product to market. Your article was very informative!

  • Doc Mudd

    Here’s a fun contest.
    Watch the video (linked below) and see how many safety issues you can find (both pro and con). You will see examples of refrigeration and sampling that are discussed in the article. Don’t forget to watch in the background as food is mauled and groped then returned to tables. Some are obvious, but may be controversial: i.e. the dog licking spilled chicken juice off the floor — could be considered a bad idea or maybe its a real clever housekeeping convenience…you decide.
    Anyway, here’s the link:
    For extra credit, score in our professional shopper for thrift — keep in mind these farmers markets are being hyped by Merrigan and the FLOTUS as great ideas to sponsor with tax dollars near poverty-stricken communities for financially challenged folks to feed themselves from. I figure our shopper dropped a couple hundred bucks to feed 2 – 3 folks, but maybe with SNAP & WIC it would be affordable for a family of 6 – 8 in the ‘hood?
    For extra-extra credit write down and score the best sales pitches (my favorite is the “hobo corn” – I’m gonna check with the next homeless person I encounter to see if they won’t give me some magic seeds, or something! But, hey, the pickle guy lays out a pretty smooth line of crap, too. And the little kid peddling eggs. Oh, man, they’re all good, they’re pros)
    Have fun with the contest. Haven’t decided what the winner’s prize should be…maybe a link to some printable coupons for Spam[TM], or something like that.

  • Ann

    I read one person say they did not buy any thing from the farmers market any more, and now no sick kids. For me the other is true. When I buy from the grocery store they have up balloons and use latex gloves to handle my food. I am allergic to latex. So just going in I get sick them after getting the food home if rubber bands are wraped around the product I can die, so I have to be very careful. At least most of the farmers I deal with take care to handle my produce with clean hands and respect. They put no rubber bands on all the organic produce so I don’t get sick or die. If they did not I would not be able to buy food for my family. I recently went to Kroger to buy food and had to leave it was so full of balloons that I had hives and my throat was closing before I could get out of the store. I could not buy any thing I was so sick. I would rather take my chances at my farmers market plus I know the farmer is getting the money not some middle man.

  • From a biology professor and mother of 2: Not happy with the Oregon guy’s statement about chance–misleading and potentially dangerous to suggest that people shouldn’t bother to wash their fruits and veggies. He’s right that a stream of tap water won’t remove a biofilm, but soaking and rinsing can still reduce microbial load. You’re gonna eat some bacteria and maybe some bad ones, but amount does matter.

  • Glad to have our Union Square Greenmarket just a few blocks away here in NYC. I grab everything I can from there 3 times a week and have felt healthier and been inspired to cook and taste new things.