FMC Perspective: Food Safety at Farmers Markets
Posted On: November 16, 2018
by Ben Feldman, FMC Policy Director | firstname.lastname@example.org
You may have seen the recent study released by Penn State University on food safety at farmers markets. As the study gained attention from various news outlets, members and supporters reached out to us with concerns about the way it was being reported. Some news stories contained sensational headlines, overstating the food safety risks of farmers markets.
Context is imperative, and for shoppers to remain confident in the quality and safety of food at their local farmers market, they must understand the broader picture. The following information is provided to help you as market operators improve both your understanding of the study, and respond to any food safety questions you may receive from shoppers or stakeholders.
Farmers Markets Mitigate Food Safety Risks
Let’s start off by highlighting how farmers markets are ideal venues for fostering food safety.
Some of the very factors that make farmers markets so attractive to shoppers, such as freshness and buying directly from farmers, help to reduce risk over commercial supply chains. It is well understood that time (along with temperature) is one of the most important factors in the development of harmful microorganisms in food. Because agricultural products sold at farmers markets are typically harvested and sold within a short time period, there is less time for harmful bacteria to grow to dangerous levels.
Direct sales made at farmers markets also decreases the number of steps between farmer and consumer. This reduces risk in two notable ways:
Fewer steps means fewer opportunities for error. The longer the supply chain, the more people and equipment come in contact with the food as it makes its way to consumers. Each additional step along the way increases the chances for contamination.
Farmer to consumer direct sales provide excellent traceability. Not only do more steps between farmer and consumer increase the chance for contamination, they also complicate the process of tracing a disease outbreak to its source. According to scientists, “difficulties in finding the sources of contamination behind food poisoning cases are inevitable due to the increasing complexity of a global food traffic network.” By contrast, sales at farmers markets involve just two steps in the supply chain, which provides simple and easy traceability.
Context is Important
Next, let’s turn our focus to the study.
As part of a safety needs assessment, the Penn State study took a multi-year look at food handling practices among vendors while testing for any microorganisms present on produce, beef, and pork products purchased at Pennsylvania farmers markets.
The testing resulted in some cases of “questionable microbiological quality,” causing the researchers to come to the conclusion that, “the majority of farmers market vendors may be utilizing proper hygienic practices, both at retail and at the farm, while the unhygienic behaviors and practices of few vendors results in sporadic produce contamination.” In response, they created a food safety training course to address any behaviors that may have contributed to the presence of microorganisms.
The reporting on the study fails to acknowledge that the presence of microorganisms does not, on its own, indicate a health risk. There is a strong body of scientific evidence that indicates microorganisms play vital roles in human health. Evaluating health risk based merely on the presence, or lack of bacteria does little to advance our understanding of health risks in food retail environments.
The reporting on the study also fails to frame the information within the broader body of food safety and handling practices at other food retail outlets, such as grocery stores and restaurants. Without providing data on food safety collected at alternative food retail outlets, readers are unable to assess the relative risk of farmers markets compared to other places they get their food.
Food Safety Facts
Between 2008 and 2014, four incidents of foodborne illness outbreaks traced to farmers markets, all with relatively few individuals impacted.
During the same time period, there were 68 large multi-state outbreaks in the commercial supply chain, some impacting hundreds of individuals.
Restaurants account for more than half of all cases of food-borne illness.
We Can (and Should) Do More
Lastly, it is important for us to acknowledge farmers market vendors can do more to improve food safety. Here at FMC, we believe that as an industry we should strive towards improvement. As the study finds, food safety training programs tailored to the specific needs of farmers market vendors would certainly benefit the industry as a whole.
- Food Safety at Farmers Markets, Chapter 9 of the Washington State Farmers Market Association Manager Toolkit;
- Suggested Guidelines for Safe Food Sampling from the New Mexico Farmers Market Association;
- A Food Safety Self Assessment for Direct Marketing Farmers from the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and
- The Farmers Market Legal Toolkit, from the Vermont Law School and FMC, which recommends best practices for managing the market’s legal responsibilities when it comes to food safety.
Beyond trainings, additional resources to help vendors improve their food handling practices may also be necessary. In many cases, vendors are under real-world constraints that sometimes limit their ability to utilize best practices in all situations.
Being proactive about food safety is imperative at every scale. Farmers market vendors are responsible for following proper food safety protocols, shoppers are responsible for properly washing their food (and tote bags!), and market leaders are responsible for making sure everyone has all the information they need to have a safe, happy market experience.
It is important to keep the results from the study in perspective while doing our part to improve food safety at our markets and in our homes.