This is National Farmers Market Week, and with a bounty of freshly harvested food now available from local farms, people are flocking to the markets — for all sorts of reasons. “There’s nothing better than interacting with the people that nourish your body,” said one of the people responding to the American Farmland Trust’s request for reasons why they shop at farmers markets. “I love supporting local farms; farmers are the backbone of this country’s food supply,” said another. “We LOVE knowing the people who grow and harvest what we eat,” said another. On its Website devoted to farmers markets, USDA says that the markets give farmers the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with their customers, which helps cultivate consumer loyalty with the farmers who grows the produce. A common theme running through these comments and others supplied when people are asked why they shop at farmers markets is the connection it gives them with the farmers. And while that personal connection is valued by farmers and consumers alike, the question arises: How many shoppers actually know what food-safety practices the farmers and vendors are following? Fortunately, shoppers can pick up a lot of clues about food safety by noticing what’s happening at the vendors’ booths. Londa Vanderwal Nwadike, food-safety specialist at Kansas State University/University of Missouri Extension, refers to these clues as ”food-safety indicators.” In a short television interview about what farmers-market shoppers can do to navigate their way to good food-safety choices, Nwadike offered some simple, down-to-earth suggestions. For example, when deciding on meats, cheeses and eggs, pick them up to make sure that they’re cold. Then, too, a big cooler with ice is a good sign that the farmer is serious about food safety, she said. When choosing eggs, open up the carton and make sure the eggs are clean and not cracked and that the carton is clean. Reusing egg cartons is fine, she said, but not if they’re dirty. When it comes to hot prepared foods, if you see a vendor using a thermometer, “That’s a really good sign,” Nwadike said. In an interview with Food Safety News, Nwadike also recommended sizing up the way hot foods are being kept hot. It may be OK in some cases if the vendor is using just one Sterno can, but in general, using two or three Sterno cans or a slow cooker is preferable and therefore a better food-safety indicator. As for prepared foods such as salsa, pickles, jam, and BBQ sauces, shoppers should ask the vendor what specific handling instructions they should follow once they get the items home. Nwadike said that depending on how these foods are prepared, they could require refrigeration or could be shelf-stable. Asking these types of questions also gives consumers a chance to find out more about preparation methods the vendor is using and his or her knowledge of how to do it safely. “If they did not use a boiling water bath (or pressure canning), the product needs to be refrigerated,” said Nwadike. Another “food-safety indicator” is how vendors are handling their samples. Nwadike said that servers should be keeping a barrier, such as a glove, tongs, tissues or utensils, between their hands and the food. The samples should also be offered in a way that shoppers touch only the sample they’re choosing. Toothpicks in apple slices is a good example. Handwashing stations at booths — and seeing vendors using them — are also good food-safety indicators. The same is true for how clean vendors keep the surfaces of their booths and the knives they use to cut up samples. “If you see that vendors are not keeping their food, the surfaces they are selling the food from, their utensils and other things clean, then don’t buy from them,” she said. Clothing is another indicator. Nwadike said that if the vendors’ clothes are dirty, there could be harmful bacteria or chemicals on them. “Good personal hygiene is an excellent indicator,” Nwadike said, pointing out that vendors who take pride in their products and who are conscientious about personal cleanliness are sending out good indicators that they want to do things right. Although it’s not a common practice, some farmers post certificates that show they’ve been trained in food safety and/or have been inspected by the relevant regulatory authority. These, of course, can be good indicators of food-safety practices, and this approach can be a good marketing tool that inspires confidence, Nwadike said. Going one step further, Nwadike urges shoppers to ask vendors about their food-safety practices. This could include questions about the water-quality standards they follow for their irrigation and wash water and how they fertilize their crops. Shoppers’ assumptions also come into play. Nwadike said she’s always amazed at how many people tell her that as long as food is organic, everything’s fine. But although organic food has been grown and processed under specific requirements that don’t allow pesticides, for example, Nwadike said that those requirements don’t address potentially deadly foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella. According to a recently released report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fruits and vegetables accounted for 46 percent of the 4,589 foodborne illness outbreaks linked to a specific commodity between 1998 and 2008. Also, according to the report, more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity. U.S. Food and Drug Administration analysis of available foodborne illness outbreak data documents 131 outbreaks associated with contaminated produce between 1996 and 2010 that caused more than 14,000 illnesses and 34 deaths. These foodborne illness outbreaks were caused mainly by biological hazards such as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Shigella, Hepatitis A and Cyclospora. In the case of any foodborne illnesses that might be linked to a farmers market, Nwadike told Food Safety News in a previous article that it doesn’t often show up on the media 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 noted. Describing the people who are more vulnerable to food poisoning, Nwadike said it’s the young, old, pregnant and those with compromised immune systems. With that in mind, you must be extremely careful about the food you buy for them, she said. Some tips from the feds In an article about food safety at farmers markets, Howard Seltzer, a food-safety official with FDA, advises shoppers to check to see if juice or cider has been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria. He points out that pregnant women, children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems should drink only pasteurized or treated juice. He also warns shoppers not to buy milk at a farmers market unless they can confirm that it has been pasteurized. “Raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria that can pose serious health risks to you and your family,” he said. As for meat, Seitzer advises shoppers to make sure it’s properly chilled and to keep raw meat separate from other purchases. In doing that, they’ll be keeping any juices from the raw meat, which can contain harmful bacteria, away from produce and other foods. Getting the food home Hot weather and summer go hand in hand. That’s why Nwadike advises shoppers to bring along some sort of cooler such as an insulated bag with an icepack inside for getting the food home. Especially on hot days, she said it’s a good idea to make the farmers market the last stop before going home. She also recommends putting in in the passenger part of the car, rather than in the trunk, since temperatures can get very high in the trunk of a vehicle. Once perishable food is home, it should be immediately refrigerated or frozen. Nwadike also advises people to follow the same basic food safety rules as they would with any foods they purchase: “Cook and/or chill foods properly, keep foods (and hands) and work surfaces clean, and keep ready-to-eat and raw foods separate,” she said. FDA’s Seltzer provides these at-home tips for produce:
- Before and after preparing fresh produce, wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap.
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water just before eating, cutting and cooking. (FDA does not recommend washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent or using commercial produce washes).
- Even if you plan to peel the produce before eating it, it is still important to wash it first. That’s because any bacteria that might be present on the outside of items such as melons can be transferred to the inside of the fruit when you cut and peel them. (Any knife that will be used on the produce should be washed before and after using it.)
- Be sure to refrigerate cut or peeled fruits and vegetables within two hours after preparation.
- FDA describes fresh produce as possessing a special food safety risk because, when eaten raw, it doesn’t go through a “kill step” such as being subjected to temperatures high enough to kill harmful pathogens.
Fresh produce is also of special concern, says the agency, because people are eating increasing amounts of it, in part because public health agencies are recommending fruits and vegetables for their nutritional benefit. Also, because produce is generally grown outdoors, it can be contaminated in various ways such as by polluted irrigation water, fecal droppings from wildlife and livestock and contact with the soil. About cantaloupes and tomatoes Trevor Suslow, food-safety specialist at the University of California, Davis, provided some tips about cantaloupes and tomatoes. Because cantaloupes grow close to, or on, the soil where harmful bacteria can get onto them, they should be washed with a produce scrub brush. (No need to use soap or other cleaners.) Knives used to cut the cantaloupe should also be washed before and after use. It’s also important to make sure that the surfaces cantaloupes come into contact with are cleaned before and after cutting or handling the cantaloupe. When buying cut or diced cantaloupe, make sure it’s displayed on ice, with plenty of ice surrounding it. Any cut melon that has been kept for longer than two hours at room temperature, or one hour when temperatures are more than 90 degrees F., should be thrown out. In the past two years, contaminated cantaloupes have killed more than 30 people and sickened hundreds. Regarding tomatoes, avoid those with nicks or cuts on them. When washing tomatoes, don’t put them in a sink or tub full of water because any contamination that might be on them can get into the water and be absorbed into the tomatoes’ stem scar. Cut tomatoes for salsa should be covered and refrigerated. Throw out cut tomatoes if they’ve been held for longer than two hours at room temperature or one hour at temperatures of more than 90 degrees F. On occasion, tomatoes have been linked to Salmonella outbreaks. Go here for more food safety tips at farmers markets.