A new study found generic E. coli on nearly one-third of the fresh produce sold at farmers’ markets in Northern California. It was not a test for the dangerous pathogenic E. coli, but a check on fecal contamination in fresh produce sold at pristine farmers’ markets.

Californians love their farmers markets, which are “certified” by local environmental health agencies and required to have valid health permits. But how risky are they really when it comes to dangerous foodborne pathogens like the prevalence of Salmonella and E. coli in meat and produce?

University of California-Davis researchers decided to evaluate food safety risks associated with consuming beef, pork, poultry, and fresh produce purchased from farmers’ markets. They went shopping at 44 certified farmers’ markets in Northern California.

The UC Davis researchers found Salmonella in 6 out of 338 or 1.8 percent of the animal products they purchased at certified farmers’ markets. The 128 fresh produce samples that were tested did not contain any Salmonella.

E. coli was present in 40 of the 128 fresh produce samples for 31.8 percent. The concentrations ranged from 0 to 2.96 with an overall average of 0.13.

The salmonella isolates were resistant to antibiotic agents nalidixic acid and tetracycline. The researchers cited a need for further training or mitigation strategies to reduce animal products and fresh produce foodborne pathogens.

The scientists stressed study highlights:

  • All produce samples tested were negative for Salmonella.
  • Six, or 1.8 percent of the 338 meat samples tested positive for Salmonella
  • E. coli prevalence in produce was 40, or 31.3 percent, of 128 samples tested.
  • Salmonella isolates were resistant to nalidixic acid and tetracycline.

Researchers acknowledged that the level of generic E. coli found is high, the concentrations are low. Leafy greens and root vegetables recorded the highest E. coli prevalence.

Alda Pires, with UC’s Cooperative Extension, said meat and produce purchased at farmers’ markets are safe to consume with a low risk of contamination from foodborne pathogens like Salmonella.

Michael Jay-Russell with the Western Center for Food Safely at UC Davis, said farmers need to pay attention to everything they are doing from planting to storage to avoid contamination.

As for Certified Farmers Markets, they are defined in the California Retail Food Code or CalCode as food facilities, requiring valid health permits, and these considerations:

  • The health permit held by the Certified Farmers Market covers all the agricultural and non-agricultural vendors selling at the Certified Farmers Markets.
  • Since the health permits cover all certified, non-certified, and non-agricultural vendors that are part of the CFM, the CFM market manager is responsible for ensuring that each vendor is in compliance with CalCode.
  • Products that are considered non-certifiable include processed products from certified agricultural products such as fruit and vegetable juices, shelled nuts, jams and jellies, and wine. Other examples include catfish, trout, and oysters from controlled aquaculture operations, livestock and livestock products, and poultry and poultry products.
  • Though these products are not “certified”, they have been produced or derived from plants or animals raised or produced by the producer. These non-certifiable processed agricultural products may include, or have added to them, a limited number of ingredients or additives which only act as preservatives or are essential in the preparation of the product. Examples include pickles and cucumbers in a brine or vinegar solution for curing or pickling, natural smoking of meat or poultry for drying and preserving, flavorings such as smokehouse, hickory, or jalapeno added to shelled nuts which do not change the visual identity of the product, sulfites added to dried fruits and vegetables, and sugar, and fruit juices, and to make jams and jellies.
  • Non-certifiable agricultural food products must be from an “approved source”.
  • Possession of a valid Certified Producer certificate by the seller is considered an approved source for certified agriculture products. For non-certifiable agricultural food products, the processing and storage location must be under regulation by an authority acceptable to the State Department of Health Services or local environmental health agency.

Examples of approved sources include a Food Registration from the State Food and Drug Branch, a local environmental health agency permit from the jurisdiction where production takes place, or a federal inspection certificate.

 Non-agricultural vendors and Temporary Food Facilities may operate adjacent to and under the jurisdiction of a Certified Farmers Market and may store, display, and sell from a table or display fixture in a manner approved by the local enforcement agency.

This phrase means vendors who are selling non-agricultural products on property controlled by the CFM manager and who contracts with the CFM manager for a sales space. Vendors who meet these requirements may store, display, and sell from a table or display apart from the vehicle, in a manner approved by local law enforcement.

In most cases, certified and non-certifiable agricultural products are displayed on tables. Section 114047 and 114371(a) requires that food shall be stored at least 6 inches off the floor or ground or under any other conditions which are approved. Bulk ready-to-eat foods, such as shelled nuts and dried fruit, shall be protected from contamination. Acceptable methods include prepackaging food at an approved facility or displaying food in approved containers with lids. Dispensing methods shall avoid direct hand contact with ready-to-eat food, and shall be approved by the local environmental health agency.

Certain types of lettuce are harvested as single leaves and can be combined to create a “salad mix.” However, any processing of produce beyond trimming, such as chopping or shredding, or selling a salad mix as “washed, ready-to-eat,” would be considered food preparation and subject to CalCode requirements for processed food.

Preparation and distribution of food samples from agricultural products is allowed provided that the following sanitary conditions exist:

  1. Samples shall be kept in approved, clean covered containers.
  2. All food samples shall be distributed by the producer in a sanitary manner.
  3. Clean, disposable plastic gloves shall be used when cutting food samples.
  4. Food intended for sampling shall be washed, or cleaned in another manner, of any soil or other material by potable water in order that it is wholesome and safe for consumption.
  5. Potable water shall be available for hand washing and sanitizing as approved by the local enforcement agency.
  6. Potentially hazardous food samples shall be maintained at or below 41°F. All other food samples shall be disposed of within two hours after cutting.
  7. Utensil and hand washing water shall be disposed of in a facility connected to a public sewer system or in a manner approved by the local environmental health agency.
  8. Utensils and cutting surfaces shall be smooth, nonabsorbent, and easily cleaned or disposed of as approved by the local enforcement agency.

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