No one wants customers to get sick. That was the message that University of Vermont Extension food safety specialist Londa Nwadike used to start off her recent webinar presentation about food safety tips for farmers market vendors and managers. With an eye toward the benefits of following good food safety protocol at markets, Nwadike was quick to point out that food safety can be a good marketing tool. Visual cues are important when attracting consumers. If, for example, a farmers market vendor has a clean and neat appearance, uses gloves or tongs, and follows visible food safety practices such as cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and utensils, customers will notice. “It helps instill confidence,” she said. In an e-mail to Food Safety News after the webinar, Nwadike said farmers can use a range of strategies to let customers know that food safety is important to them. These could include displaying a sign in their booth saying something like: “Ask me about my food safety practices,” or, “Proud to use good food safety practices.” Going one step further, she said vendors could even post a sign listing some of their food safety practices. If they have food safety certifications such as Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) or if they follow any non-mandatory regulations, she said, they could post that information as well. Giving a few more reasons why following food safety practices is important for vendors, Nwadike said it offers a good measure of protection from being sued, as would likely happen to a vendor if a customer became ill from food from that stand. When looking at protecting the farmers market as a whole, she said that if one vendor doesn’t use good food safety practices and someone should become ill, it would bring a bad name to the entire market, or perhaps even to farmers markets in the entire state. She also said that it helps assure customers that product quality and safety, as well as their health, is important to a vendor. Harold Stone, entrepreneurial farmer and founder of Stones Thoreau near Davenport, Nebraska, would agree with Nwadike on the importance of following good food safety practices. In an email to Food Safety News, he said he grows fruits and vegetables, and that he has purchased the old pharmacy in town in order to turn it into a year-round farmers market and commercial kitchen for value-added products and rural enterprise — “to create jobs in this food desert.” And, yes, food safety is a “must” in these entrepreneurial endeavors. “Growing and processing healthy food is a service we provide to our community of 300,” he said. “That’s why proper food handling, from the field to the farmers market to the commercial kitchen is an essential part of what we do to keep our community healthy.” He describes food safety webinars and courses as “a significant line of defense, ensuring that our food systems — from field to table — provide all of the nutritional value we need — without the potential health risks that come through uninformed food-handling practices.” What about food safety stats for farmers markets? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 6 people are sickened by foodborne illness every year. But Nwadike pointed out that cases of food poisoning are generally “highly under-reported.” Many people who experience symptoms as diarrhea and stomach upsets usually don’t go to the doctor. And it’s only when enough people get sick from what might be the same food item that health officials try to trace the problem back to the source. In the case of any foodborne illnesses that might be linked to a farmers market, Nwadike said it doesn’t often show up on the media’s radar screen, primarily because it doesn’t affect enough people at one time. “But there can definitely be a foodborne illness from a farmers market,” she said, pointing out that there have indeed been cases linked to farmers markets. Describing the demographics that are more vulnerable to food poisoning, Nwadike said it’s the young, old, pregnant and those with compromised immune systems. “If your product is geared to people in these groups, you must be extremely careful,” she said. Stone, the farmer and farmers market entrepreneur from Nebraska, would agree with that wholeheartedly. “Seniors comprise a larger percentage of the population in rural communities, and Davenport, Neb., mirrors that statistic,” he said. “Older people often have less resistance to foodborne disease, and it is essential that our food be of highest standards to serve this susceptible population.” Beware the ‘temperature danger zone’ Temperature is extremely important, said Nwadike. The danger zone is from 40 to 140 degrees F. And from 60 to 110 degrees F, bacteria can reproduce rapidly. That’s a good temperature range to keep in mind, she said, because at most farmers markets, that’s usually what the temperature range is during the day. Bottom line: it’s important to limit the time the food is in the danger zone to stop bacteria from growing. And just as importantly, food must not only be kept at the right temperatures while at the market, but also when it’s being transported and stored. Hot prepared foods must be kept at 135 degrees F, although 140 degrees F is better yet, she said. Cold perishables such as dairy products and potato salads need to be kept at 32 to 40 degrees. And frozen foods (meals) must be kept at less than 15 degrees. (Each state has its own regulations, so vendors will need to check with their Agriculture or Health departments on this.) Foods typically sold at room temperature — whole produce, most baked goods and canned goods, for example — should be kept at temperatures lower than 80 degrees F. Food quality also comes into the picture, Nwadike said, pointing out that keeping foods at these recommended temperatures doesn’t just keep them safe but also keeps them fresh. All of this adds up to one of the tried-and-true food safety basics: “The most important thing to have is a thermometer,” Nwadike said, pointing out that you can get one for $5 at any grocery store. Checking food temperatures during the day is important to make sure the food is still in the safe temperature range. Cross-contamination Transferring harmful bacteria from one product to another can happen in all sorts of ways, the most obvious being when raw meat or poultry comes into contact with fresh produce. That can happen if the foods are put into the same bag, but it can also happen if the bag, itself, is harboring harmful bacteria. That’s why Nwadike recommends that any time a bag is reused — whether by the farmer or the consumer — that it be clean. “Remind your customers to clean their bags, especially if they had raw meat in them, she said. It’s also important to wash, rinse and sanitize surfaces, equipment and utensils between uses. That means a farmer should have dish pans, soap, warm water and a sanitizer on hand. Personal hygiene Good personal hygiene is a good marketing strategy, Nwadike said, pointing out that a vendor’s clothes and hands should be clean. As for shaking hands with a customer? Nope, don’t do it, she advised, simply because you don’t want to run the risk of getting bacteria from a customer’s hand onto your own. Don’t pet dogs or other animals, and don’t touch soiled produce or utensils. As for touching money, well, that’s another challenge, especially if you’re the only one at the booth. A good strategy to avoid touching the produce in cases like this is to put your hand (or have the customer put his or her hand) into a plastic bag, gather the produce, and then turn the bag inside out. Using tongs is another strategy. And, of course, wash your hands often. Another tip about avoiding cross-contamination when selling perishable foods is to always have a barrier (gloves, for example) between them and the vendor’s bare hands. In her reply to a question from Food Safety News after the webinar, Nwadike said it’s important for farmers market managers and vendors to know that they still need to wash their hands and use good practices if they are wearing gloves. “We need to emphasize to vendors that they need to change their gloves if they have touched something potentially ‘dirty,’ just as they would need to wash their hands if they were not wearing gloves,” she said, adding that this is also relevant information for people who work in food processing facilities. Another tip for vendors: Do not eat at the booth, because your hand is coming into contact with your mouth, and you don’t want to run the risk of transferring bacteria from your mouth to your hands. Samples Farmers market customers love to sample the food, and vendors see this as a good marketing strategy simply because many times, customers buy what they’ve sampled. Some states allow sampling; other states don’t. Vendors will need to check with their state agriculture or health departments or with their county Extension office to find out specific requirements and regulations. Nwadike suggests preparing samples such as cheese in a sanitary way ahead of time, when possible; although this, of course, isn’t practical for fresh fruit. And while at the market, servers need to keep a barrier between the samples and their bare hands. In addition, the samples should be covered to protect them from airborne contamination. Temperature is also important when it comes to samples. Nwadike advises vendors to put out just small amounts of samples at a time and, if they’re perishable, not to keep them at room temperature any longer than two hours. The rest should be kept either cold or hot, according to the temperature requirements for that specific food item. Also, it’s good to spread out the samples enough that a customer doesn’t touch any sample but the one he or she is selecting. And use disposable single-use items such as toothpicks. Any fresh fruits or vegetables should be washed before cutting and offering them as samples. When using utensils such as knives and cutting boards, vendors should bring along some clean water to wash these items after they’ve used them. When it comes to samples of prepared foods, it’s important to list the ingredients so people with food allergies will know if they should avoid them. Also, the food that’s being sold should be displayed separately from the samples. And while state regulations vary on this, vendors making prepared foods should use only ingredients from safe sources. For example, the milk should be from a licensed producer and the meat should have been inspected. What about these food items? Meat and poultry. Meat and poultry are more regulated than other foods sold at farmers markets, so it’s important that vendors know about their state’s licensing requirements. As with produce, keeping these products at a safe temperature when storing, transporting or while at the market is important. For the customers’ sake, Nwadike said, it’s very important to include safe handling instructions on the labels. Here are some guidelines for foods by category:
Eggs: Always a popular item, eggs should be kept at at least 45 degrees F or lower, although states have varying regulations on this.
As a good marketing strategy, vendors should label the egg carton with their address. They should also make sure that the cartons — whether they’re the farm’s or recycled ones that customers bring to the market — are clean and don’t have “drippings” from cracked eggs.
Dairy: Vendors need to check with their state regulations about licensing, labeling and temperature requirements.
Produce: Different states have different requirements about produce, and the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 has led to the writing of a proposed set of new produce rules. The rule of thumb for cut greens and lettuce is to keep them chilled at 41 degrees F or lower — all the way through the food chain.
Ready-to-eat foods: Again, vendors need to check on licensing, labeling and temperature requirements.
When reheating cooled foods, they should be heated to 165 degrees and then “hot held” at least 140 degrees until they’re served.
“It’s important that these foods be reheated to a high enough temperature to kill bacteria,” Nwadike said, following up that advice with the importance of having a handwashing station at the booth.
Cold ready-to-eat foods should be kept at 41 degrees F or lower.
And in all cases, clean food-grade packaging is a must.
Baked goods: Vendors need to follow labeling requirements, which may involve including information about the name of the vendor, the ingredients and the quantity of the ingredients in the order of the volumes used.
Jams, jellies and canned goods: Again, vendors need to check on the licensing requirements in their states. Some require that these products be made in a commercial-grade kitchen; others allow them to made at home.
But how expensive is all of this to implement? While some market farmers say that abiding by food safety requirements can be too expensive for the small-scale farmer, Nwadike said that most of the equipment farmers need for transporting, preparing and displaying their food safely is relatively inexpensive. For example, a food carrier that keeps foods hot is can run at about $200, and can be cheaper online. A food cooler can be bought for $20, coolant ice packs for $3 and ice for $2. Once at the market, hot food can be kept hot with some Sterno cans — enough cans strategically placed to heat the entire pan. When it’s breezy or windy, aluminum foil wind guards can be placed around the cans to keep the heat from dissapating. And in all cases, the temperature of the food needs to be checked at intervals to make sure the Sterno is still doing the job. Other heat sources can be a deep fryer ($30), an electric or gas grill for meat ($25), and an electric hot plate ($20). As for keeping the booth and the food clean, three dishpans or buckets ($2 or $3 each) are recommended. Dish soap, dish rags, bleach and chlorine wipes should be handy. The webinar’s slides show other affordable equipment that farmers market vendors can use. In an interview after the webinar, Joe Buckley, owner of Buckley’s Home Grown, who also manages the farmers market at The Pass Market, which he described “as south in Mississippi as you can get,” said he would highly recommend the webinar to other farmer market managers so they can share the information with their market vendors. “You can’t afford not to follow good food safety practices,” he said. When asked about the importance of keeping foods cool enough where he lives, Buckley laughed and said that it was so hot when he was picking greens and lettuce that day that he had to have ice in the sink because even the tap water wasn’t cold enough. “Temperature is important,” he said. “You have to keep food at the right temperature.” In an e-mail to Food Safety News after the webinar, Mary Peabody of the University of Vermont Extension, Community & Economic Development, said, “As we see the number of farmers markets increase throughout the country and the number of small scale farms increasing their production of value-added foods and prepared foods, we need to be especially careful to maintain the safety and quality of the products that are being sold.” What about out on the farm? Although Nwadike’s presentation focused on food safety practices for farmers markets, she also provided Food Safety News these on-the-farm tips after the webinar: Growers selling their produce at farmers markets should make sure that they are following any state or local requirements for produce safety, including clean irrigation and wash water and safe use of any biological soil amendments, such as manure. “In the absence of any regulations, they should still be following best practices to ensure a safe product for their customers,” she said. “And they should also use similar best practices as farmers market vendors, including worker health and hygiene, keeping their equipment clean, and having cleanable packsheds.” Coming up next Extension Webinar Series for Farmers’ Market Vendors
May 9. Tracking sales and collecting customer feedback to learn what your customers really think, presented by Mary Peabody, University of Vermont Extension
June 13 – Are you a supermarket vendor or a super market vendor, presented by Ginger Myers, University of Maryland Extension
All webinars will air monthly on the second Thursday at 2 p.m. (ET); 1 p.m. (CT); noon (MT); 11 a.m. (PT) at https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/etc-cop. No pre-registration is required and there is no fee to participate. About 10 minutes prior to the start time simply go the Adobe Connect Pro meeting room at https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/etc-cop. You will be presented with a login screen that has an “Enter as Guest” option. Enter your full name then click “Enter Room” to join the conference.