But a recent study by researchers at Penn State University in State College, Pa., finds that bucolic image is not always the reality. The scientists and a separate group of inspectors examined food safety risks at Pennsylvania farmers markets, such as vendors handling money and unpackaged foods without changing gloves.
They found that one of the biggest issues was vendors needing food safety training. In a subsequent phase of the study, they developed an online curriculum for Penn State Extension to train vendors at farmers markets in safe food practices. Iowa State University and North Carolina State University have similar training programs.
The University of Maine also has suggestions for food safety and personal hygiene. It advises to monitor food temperatures because perishable goods left at temperatures from 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours are no longer safe to eat and utilizing hand sanitizer can help with personal hygiene.
The Penn State researchers identified the issues by combining three different observations to determine food safety at farmers markets: 1) inspectors, 2) their own direct field observations, and 3) the self-reported food safety behaviors of farmers market vendors.
“We found that our direct field observations and inspector findings were very similar, yet very different from what most vendors said they were doing—their self-reported behaviors,” says Cathy Cutter, PhD, professor of food science in the Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences in State College.
Dr. Cutter says vendors think they are doing a good job, but they are not and they need to do better. She believes the problem is likely to be similar in every state.
And with the consumer focus on buying local foods and the more than 8,500 farmers markets operating in the U.S. today, that’s a problem.
The researchers studied more than 100 markets in Pennsylvania including traditional markets, large markets with refrigeration units, and pop-up tent markets.
Dr. Cutter says the USDA found that 40 percent of farmers markets are selling prepared foods, 66 percent are selling meat or poultry, and 16 percent are selling fish or seafood.
“These significant changes in the kinds of foods sold at farmers markets present new food safety challenges and implications,” comments Joshua Scheinberg, PhD, who performed the research with Dr. Cutter and other colleagues as his doctoral thesis. He is now the director of food safety and quality assurance with Godshall’s Quality Meats, Telford, Pa.
“As a result, several studies have revealed high-risk food safety factors unique to farmers markets and farmers market vendors,” he says.
The behaviors the researchers and inspectors observed at farmers markets in Pennsylvania included issues with handwashing, personal hygiene, and cross-contamination. For example, disposable glove use remains low. And some of those who did use gloves used the same gloves to handle money and unpackaged foods—increasing the possibility of cross-contamination problems.
Sometimes long lines of customers inadvertently put pressure on vendors, who simply forget to change gloves when handling different foods or food and money, Dr. Cutter points out. One solution is to keep one pair of gloves by lettuce and another by the money and switch back and forth as the vendor changes tasks.
The researchers checked leafy greens and meat they got at the Pennsylvania farmers markets for hygiene issues. They found E. coli was present in 40 percent of their beef samples, 18 percent of pork samples, and 28 percent of kale samples. They also found Listeria in 8 percent of beef samples and 7 percent of spinach samples.
The researchers did not collect any data on possible illnesses that might have resulted from unclean food handling practices, Dr. Cutter notes.
Dr. Cutter says the study began after Dr. Scheinberg observed unsanitary practices at a farmers’ market, including a pickup truck selling meat marked “not for sale.” Pennsylvania requires the USDA to inspect meat sold to the public, she says.
Consumers should also take the initiative and say something to the vendor if they see something unsanitary.
“Call out the vendor for not changing gloves,” says Dr. Cutter. “If more consumers do it, it may change the tide.”
Additionally, consumers need to safely handle the food they buy. Dr. Cutter notes that during a poll she and some students conducted on an 85-degree Fahrenheit day in a pop-up tent market, one person answering the survey had her own bad practices.
“One woman bought three cold chickens on ice, then came over to fill out a survey, sat down, and put the chicken on a hot pavement,” says Dr. Cutter. “I asked if she wanted to put it up on the table but she said no. It was on the hot ground for 45 minutes.
“I am a microbiologist,” Dr. Cutter continues. “I kept thinking about how many times microorganisms were growing on the chicken while I was talking to her.”
Next steps include more education.
“Vendors don’t understand cross-contamination,” Dr. Cutter says. “We have some work to do. My hope is that other states will implement this [educational program] for this underserved audience.”
Their findings were published in the November 1 issue of Food Protection Trends.