Asking questions at the farmers’ market

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 8.46.11 AMA couple weeks ago I took my kids to the farmers’ market. Sam, who is 3, is all about food shopping: picking out what the family will be eating while trying to convince me to buy him treats and snacking on the free samples. While Jack and Dani were looking at plants for our gardens, Sam and I toured the food stalls. We came upon a vendor selling cider (right, exactly as shown).

Worrying more about my kids safety than looking like a nerd, I asked, “Is it pasteurized?”

The dude at the stall answered, “It sure is, flash pasteurized to keep it safe.”


My friend Judy Harrison writes in this month’s Food Safety Magazine that farmers’ markets continue to increase as a place for folks to connect with their food.

Visiting with your neighbors, listening to live music while shopping, meeting the farmer who grew the produce, sampling the fresh food in the market, the festival-like atmosphere…that is the downhome feel that has Americans flocking to farmers markets.

Who are the customers shopping at these markets? It takes only a trip on an early Saturday morning to see that many of the customers are senior adults, people who may have health problems and mothers with young children all shopping for foods they perceive to be healthier and safer than those you buy in the grocery store. What is often casually observed is an attitude, not just among consumers but among farmers and market managers as well, that “It’s locally grown…I know that farmer…It’s organic…so it is healthier and safer than what I could get at the store.”

If you took a tour of your local farmers market, what would you see? Many local markets are held in open fields in city parks or even in parking lots. Conditions may be less than sanitary. You are likely to observe fruits and vegetables displayed on the ground rather than being held at least six inches above this surface, as would be required in food storage areas of restaurants or grocery stores. You are also likely to encounter customers or even vendors bringing their dogs into the market area and having access to displays. You may or may not see handwashing facilities or at least hand sanitizer being provided in the market. Some of the produce may already be packaged in open bags for customers to pick up, or customers may be allowed to handle and select their own produce. You may even see stations where customers can bring produce they have just purchased to be juiced or blended into healthy shakes—with no evidence of facilities for washing produce, hands or equipment. You may see displays where customers can sample cut produce that is not being kept on ice or refrigerated. You may also see entrepreneurs who are making and selling food products that you hope are at least following cottage food regulations. As a food safety professional, you see opportunities for increased risk of foodborne illness.

Judy’s comments are bang-on, lots of people shop at the farmers market, have various perceptions and may not see the world through the eyes of a food microbiologist. The conversation I had with the cider vendor led me to revisit a project idea we’ve had steeping for a while: what questions do I ask at the farmers’ market – and what do I think the answers should be? Stuff like what does the producer do to evaluate the safety of the water they use, do they use composted manure, how do they handle ill staff who show up to pick?

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I have linked a draft of a document that captures those questions and more and I’m asking the online food safety nerds to share additional thoughts and questions to make the document more robust. Feel free to add a comment here on the blog, tweet @benjaminchapman, post a comment on our Facebook page or use old fashioned e-mail.



7TH Heaven Gourmet spreads sold at CA farmers’ markets recalled due to botulism risk

Lots of people make great-tasting homemade foods like dips, pickles or salsa. But, just like opening a restaurant isn’t as simple as throwing good dinner parties, moving a good product into commercial production takes a lot of work – including recognizing hazards and controlling them.

To reduce risks to business and brand damage, food retailers usually place a lot of requirements in place for suppliers prior to carrying their products – things like proof of inspection, a validated process, visits to the processor and insurance. These precautions don’t eliminate problems but are an indicator that a retailer is paying attention.

While requirements like these are anecdotally reported at some farmers’ markets, the same level of vendor verification isn’t always in place.

One of the ultimate truths in food safety is that putting low acid foods in a jar and sealing them without either acidifying (with vinegar/fermentation) or processing correctly is a bad idea. Correctly means that someone has validated the process and the operator knows how to verify that their procedure works every time.

In June 2012, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) urged people to avoid and dispose of One Gun Ranch and Organic Soup Kitchen soups sold at farmers markets in California because they potentially contained botulinum toxin. The vendors involved were quoted as saying they didn’t know the rules (or the risks). Although none of the products tested positive for the toxin (fortunately), the process/procedure to limit the germination of Clostridium botulinum and toxin outgrowth wasn’t validated by anyone.

CDPH is yet again warning patrons of a couple of California farmers markets to avoid a vendor’s wares (those produced by 7TH Heaven Gourmet) for the same reason – lack of validated processing.

No illnesses have been linked to any of the affected products at this time.

7th Heaven Gourmet of Hesperia, California is voluntarily recalling the following varieties of spreads: Pate Mediterraneo and Eggplant & Shitake Tapenade.  These products were sold under the 7th Heaven Gourmet label and packaged in 8 ounce, glass jars with screw-on metal lids.  These food products lack production or date codes.  Photos of affected products may be obtained HERE.

7th Heaven Gourmet jarred spreads were available for purchase between September 2011 and July 2012, and only sold at the following Farmer’s Markets:

• Victorville Farmers Market (Victor Valley College) 18422 Bear Valley Rd, Victorville, CA

• Victoria Garden Farmers Market, 12505 North Mainstreet, Rancho Cucamonga, CA

Consumers in possession of the recalled products should discard them in the trash.

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.