I want to buy food from a market vendor who worries about killing their customers

When I was in high school, nerding it up with some other high school kids at the obviously-exciting annual Ontario Model Parliament simulation, I met Hilary Weston. She was the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario (that’s in Canada) and she and Galen, her husband, owned a bunch of huge food businesses including Weston Foods (Canada’s largest bakery) and most of food retailer Loblaws.

When I met her I told her I liked her bread.

Hilary and Galen’s son Galen Jr, who runs Loblaws now, has pissed some people off in the past couple of days with his (now retracted) comments that farmers’ markets are going to kill people.

I want to buy food from someone who is worried about killing people – not someone who says we we’ve never had a problem. I figure that if they worry about the consequences, they might actually do something about it.

Over the past couple of years one of my graduate students, Allison Smathers, has been working with farmers’ markets in North Carolina to develop and evaluate food safety workshops for market vendors and managers. Market managers, vendors and organizers have been part of the process from the start. But creating and delivering this training doesn’t mean that practices are impacted. Recognizing the need to measure behavior change (and the limitations of relying on self-reported tests), Allison has enlisted the help of a group of secret shoppers who have collected data on current practices and facilities and provided insight into specific areas to focus on. Stuff the shoppers saw, like improper handwashing, cross-contaminating samples and not monitoring temperatures have been the big focus.

Right now Allison and I are in Lincolnton, NC delivering the material to a bunch of extension agents who will be training market folks soon.  The secret shoppers will be back out this summer looking again for food safety practices at markets where vendors and managers have been trained – something Allison can compare to what was seen in previous summers. 2010 data was presented at the 2011 IFT annual meeting (abstract below, poster here).

At the end of the project we’ll be able to either show some changes – or not – regardless we’ll know how well the training worked and what to work on in the next iteration. 

Seems like a much better approach than "trust us."

Smathers, A., Chapman, B and Phister, T.

Evaluation of facilities and food safety practices in the North Carolina farmers market sector.

IFT Annual Meeting (June 12, 2011)

The association between produce and ready-to-eat foods with foodborne illness prompts concern in the North Carolina farmers’ market sector. Since large amounts of produce are sold at farmers’ markets, there is an increased need to protect the farmers’ market sector from foodborne illness.  Considering this potential, we designed a method of assessment to measure the food safety culture and awareness of farmers’ market vendors.  The objective of this study was to observe the practices carried out at a farmers’ market in order to assess the need for food safety training and information directed specifically toward the promotion of good food safety practices at farmers’ markets. The study used 20 secret shoppers, trained to observe and collect quantitative and qualitative data through observational surveys.  During the 2010 market season, secret shoppers provided information that was neither incriminating nor praiseworthy from 37 farmers’ markets and 168 farmers’ market vendors, representing a large sample of North Carolina markets.  The information was provided through observational surveys and results were estimated through analysis of survey data.  The survey data was used to create trends and relationships to assess the food safety knowledge and practices carried out at a farmers’ market.  Our findings highlight the need for food safety improvement in areas such as cross-contamination, hygiene, sanitation, sampling, claims, and storage.  Results provide a need for enhancement of food safety at the farmers’ markets in order to protect the farmers’ market sector from being linked to foodborne illness outbreaks. The overall goal of supporting the growth and health of the North Carolina farmers’ markets will continue to be supported through further assessment and education development.