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Hygiene and Food Safety at Farmers Markets Questioned

11/07/2018

Pennsylvania State University College of Agricultural Sciences recently conducted a survey of food safety practices at farmers markets. The study disclosed that vendors have minimal training in food safety including storage and handling. A notable conclusion from the study was that there was a wide discrepancy between evaluation of standards by professional observers and the self-reported assessment by vendors. Almost half of farmers’ markets offer prepared foods and two thirds sell meat and poultry.

It is calculated that there are more than 8,000 farmers’ markets in operation in the U.S. A large increase occurred during the Obama Administration which promoted the direct farmer-to- consumer chain as a means of “saving” family farms.

Some of the discrepancies noted by the Pennsylvania State researchers included:

  • Failure to maintain raw and temperature-sensitive foods under refrigeration
  • Failure to implement food safety including the use of gloves when handling food
  • Concurrent handling of money and unpackaged foods
  • Allowing contact between ready-to-eat foods and high-risk foods including meat and seafood.

German "Bauermarkt Display"

The principal researcher noted that indirect and surreptitious observation disclosed deviations from acceptable practice since the traditional clipboard approach generally provides a distorted assessment of practices as store holders are alerted to the need for compliance.

The study involved assays for bacterial pathogens. E.coli was present in 40 percent of beef samples, 18 percent of pork, 15 percent of kale and 29 percent of lettuce. Of greater significance was the presence of Listeria on 8 percent of beef sampled, 2 percent on kale, 4 percent on lettuce and 7 percent on spinach. There were no studies correlating observations made by the researchers in Pennsylvania into possible outbreaks of foodborne infection.

The research team included Dr. Rama Radhakrishna, Professor of Agricultural and Extension Education, Dr. Jonathan Campbell of the Department of Animal Science and Dr. Cathy Cutter, Professor of Food Science all of Pennsylvania State College of Agriculture. They all emphasized the need for training with emphasis on food safety.

The rapid expansion of farmers markets in the U.S. during the 2010s was not accompanied by appropriate investment in facilities. The situation in the U.S. with makeshift tables and stalls in parking lots can be contrasted with traditional farmers markets in Western European nations including France and Germany. Vendors use custom trailers with refrigeration and display cases. The standard of hygiene matches that of supermarkets. Even the stalls selling vegetables and non-perishable foods conform to acceptable standards of presentation and hygiene.

USDA funding was extended to farmers markets during the tenure of Tom Vilsack the former Secretary of Agriculture, but there was a disproportionate concern for public health. The situation nationwide should be rectified with involvement of the extension departments of Land-Grant colleges.