Small or large businesses are not inherently good or bad when it comes to microbial food safety. Nor are those who sell into a distribution chain any more or less safe than those who direct market their wares. A small producer, growing tomatoes, leafy greens and herbs can reduce risks just as effectively as a large producer with $10 million annually in sales.
What matters more than size or market is whether the producer recognizes hazards and puts steps in place to reduce the risk of contamination. Every business and organization fits somewhere on a continuum between positive and negative food safety culture. The quick tests for where they lie are: can everyone in the business recognize risks they are responsible for limiting, have all the tools to do so, and actually do it.
In 2010 Allison Smathers showed up in my office and we chatted about farmers’ markets in North Carolina – that the sector was growing and was providing economic impacts to communities. And that a poor food safety culture could derail things for a manager and vendor.
Over the next two years, with resources from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund, Allison tackled the situation and came up with a workshop and materials designed to move markets and vendors towards a more positive food safety culture.
We wanted to come up with some material to provide to farmers’ markets on how to protect public health and their business but there wasn’t much data on what was happening in the markets when it came to practices. Hard to know what to focus on without knowing the reality. Allison trained and led a group of secret shoppers who posed as consumers to collect that data and it was presented at IFT last year. That information became the foundation of the training curriculum – which can all be found at ncgoodfarmersmarketpractices.com. The development and materials are all there for public use. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Agents
Here’s NC State’s press release on the material and project:
Food-safety researchers at North Carolina State University are unveiling a website that offers guidance to farmer’s markets on how to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. The program is the first to rely on observational study of farmer’s markets to establish best management practices for food safety.
“This is an important issue for public health, and for farmer’s markets themselves,” says Dr. Ben Chapman, an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at NC State and co-author of the curriculum. For example, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in 2011 was linked to strawberries sold in farmer’s markets in Oregon. The outbreak led to 16 illnesses and a health advisory that severely curtailed sales at regional farmer’s markets.
“An outbreak of foodborne illness can have significant financial consequences in addition to the human cost,” Chapman says. “NC State created this curriculum in partnership with farmer’s market managers and vendors to safeguard public health and protect this growing sector of the agricultural economy.”
The training, which can be found at ncgoodfarmersmarketpractices.com, addresses food safety issues for products ranging from fruits and vegetables to dairy products. For example, it discusses how to safely offer food samples to customers (hint: use ice) and the importance of hand-washing facilities for vendors.
The guidance is the first of its kind that is based on observational research into current practices at farmer’s markets. The research was conducted at farmer’s markets throughout North Carolina. “By seeing what markets are already doing, we were able to focus on behaviors and facilities that need improvement,” Allison Smathers, MS candidate and lead curriculum developer. “It also gives us a baseline that we can use to evaluate progress in implementing these safety practices.”
The North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission supported the development and implementation of the program, which is officially titled the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Good Farmer’s Market Practices Program. County extension agents are in the process of holding workshops across North Carolina to familiarize farmer’s market managers and vendors with the guide. To date, agents have conducted more than 20 workshops, reaching more than 250 market managers and vendors.