Farmers’ Market Produce & Foodborne Illnesses

As consumers focus on eating healthy and choosing local, fresh foods over processed items from chain grocery stores, farmers’ markets grow in popularity. Many areas now offer open markets where consumers can browse through produce, meats, homemade jams or jellies, cheeses, and, in some cases, craft items for sale directly from those who grow or produce them. Although most consumers feel that purchasing foods at a local farmers’ market are healthier and more wholesome, some experts warn that more needs to be done to protect customers from foodborne illness at such events.

Less Government Oversight

One issue that some in the health industry say is a problem with farmers’ markets is the fact that there is less federal or local oversight in the foods sold at those locations. When Congress enacted the Food Safety Modernization Act, they exempted farms that gross less than $500,000 per year who sell products directly to consumers, restaurants, or stores within 275 miles. Despite the fact that local and state agencies are responsible for regulating farmers’ markets, only 14% of market mangers reported following the regulations set forth by those governmental regulations. In addition, due to the shortage of inspectors, farmers’ markets might only be inspected once per year.

Small Outbreaks Unreported

Causes of many foodborne illness outbreaks are never discovered, and small outbreaks may not be reported. It has been reported that for every confirmed case of salmonella, as many as 29 cases go unreported. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately one in six people contract a foodborne illness each year, but because the symptoms mimic other illnesses, such as the flu, cases are often underreported. The agency reports that there have been cases of illness related to a farmers’ market, but that the media rarely reports on such cases as the illness affects a small number of consumers.

Warning Signs

There are certain warning signs consumers should know before purchasing foods at a farmers’ market. These include:

  • Temperature is critical to food safety, with a danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees, as bacteria can rapidly reproduce between 60 and 110 degrees, depending on the type of food sold. Cold foods, such as cheeses or meats, should be kept between 32 and 40 degrees, while warm foods remain safe at between 135 and 140 degrees. Frozen foods remain safe if they are kept below 15 degrees, while room temperature foods, such as produce and baked goods, should be kept at temperatures lower than 80 degrees. However, because every state has their own requirements regarding required temperatures, vendors at farmers’ markets must be aware of the regulations in their locality. Unfortunately, because many farmers’ markets take place outdoors during the summer, it may be difficult for vendors to keep temperatures constant. In addition, cross-contamination is a common problem at farmers’ markets, and this can occur in unusual ways.
  • Often, vendors at farmers’ markets re-use bags provided to customers from grocery stores and department stores. If a used bag contained raw meat, such as chicken, and is not cleaned properly, placing produce in the same bag will cross-contaminate the fruit. Vendors should wash all bags used at their farmers’ market location, and wipe down surfaces often.
  • Personal hygiene is another critical factor in keeping food safe at farmers’ markets. Vendors should avoid shaking hands with customers to avoid spreading bacteria. If shaking hands is unavoidable, keep hand sanitizer available to use before touching produce. If possible, have the person handling money at the booth avoid touching food items with bare hands. Use a plastic bag or tongs to pick up food items, or ask the customer to pick out their own.
  • Keep pets and other animals away from foods.

Although farmers’ markets offer fresher food items than grocery stores, foodborne illness is a risk consumers take when they purchase foods at such locations. Although washing any produce purchased at a farmers’ market is a good practice, it is impossible to wash baked goods, meats, or cheeses before consumption. In addition, some farmers’ markets now offer cooked foods prepared by local chefs or aspiring home cooks, designed to be eaten at the market, further risking the chance of foodborne illness.