Lots of farmers’ markets; food safety still important

On Friday USDA stats folks released an updated estimate of growth of farmers’ markets with an increase of almost 10% between 2011 and 2012. There are various reasons folks say they shop at farmers’ markets: to support the local economy; feel a connection with producers; buy fresher food; have a better selection; and, the perception of increased safety.

Media reports of increased farmers’ market sales of spinach in 2006, tomatoes in 2008 and cantaloupes in 2011 echo the safety thing – pretty well every nationally-reported fresh produce outbreak results in shoppers heading away from a retail store and to the market for the implicated product. My guess is that it is easier to trust that the market vendor won’t make you sick. Because you know where they are if you do. That’s sort of a simplistic view, but might be what folks think. I dunno.

From the Raleigh News & Observer:

Jonathan Johnson can’t slice peaches fast enough.

With his pocket knife and thick thumbs, he peels off the juiciest pieces of fruit to be passed out for free. “Peach? Free sample? Want to try a peach?,” his two teenaged workers chime. Johnson fills one pint-sized plastic bowl with free samples. An empty one appears in front of him.

As he wipes the sweat from his brow, a familiar voice calls out to him (is it saying "did you wash your hands"?-ben).

“What have you got for me today?” says Donnell Johnson, of Raleigh (oh -ben).

The peach farmer grins. He had an answer prepared: “You know I’ve got some ripe ones picked out for you over here,” he says.

“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Donnell Johnson says. “These (peaches) were picked yesterday, and I get to buy them from this man here, who’s just a great guy.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more and more farmers are forming this face-to-face relationship with their customers. Last week, the USDA announced a 9.6 percent increase in the number of farmers markets listed on its national directory from 2011 to 2012. There are now 7,864 farmers markets registered with the USDA, up from 7,175 in 2011.

Over the past couple of years when I speak to market managers and vendors at various venues I tell them that capitalizing on that perception is totally fine – if they can back it up with documented practices. Whether that means someone from the market asking for vendors to employ specific good agricultural practices or requiring vendors to learn about risks and employ strategies to keep pathogens off of their wares. Whatever it is, someone in the system needs to be asking good questions and providing resources and guidance on what should be happening. Some great market managers get this and volunteer what they do – and ask for ideas on how to deal with problems.

For a look at some of the stuff (training materials and supporting documents) my group and the North Carolina Fresh Produce Safety Task Force is producing for market managers and vendors check out our site on good farmers market practices here.


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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.