Stop Foodborne Illness (stopfoodborneillness.org), a national public health organization whose mission is preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens wants to remind you that no matter where you get your food—by supporting friendly local farmers or by shopping your neighborhood supermarket—food safety is always important.
Food that is fresh is a delicious treat! Organic and sustainable farming doesn’t use pesticides, chemicals, hormones and other additives, but it isn’t necessarily safer when it comes to foodborne illness because everything is still grown in the dirt and handled by humans. Pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella are found naturally in soil, as well as manure. This basically means everything needs to be washed.
Farmers and vendors selling food at the farmers market, as well as consumers/shoppers, should understand the necessary steps to reducing the risk of illness from food. “It’s a good idea to know the signs of safe food handling when you visit each market vendor,” said Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness. “Knowing your favorite farmers and vendors are using safe food practices, definitely boosts one’s confidence in their purchases!”
Most states have passed legislation regulating farmers’ markets. For example, in Illinois, most home-canned foods other than jams, jellies and preserves cannot be sold at the farmers market. Typically, farmers markets must be inspected by local health departments to make sure each market meets food safety standards, and most vendors, including those from so-called “cottage industries,” must be licensed to sell their products at farmers markets.
For a list of farmers markets in your area, visit ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets. If you’re interested in policies and regulations affecting farmers markets in your state, contact the department of health. For more information: stopfoodborneillness.org/awareness/food-safety-by-state. The Illinois Farmers Market Food Safety Guide can be downloaded in PDF format.
What to look for when it comes to safe food handling
The condition of the vendors’ booths and their products can tell you a lot about their safe food practices. Here are some things to look for:
- Clean hands. For vendors serving food: Are they wearing gloves, and is their hair covered?
- A certification notice. Some vendors will display certificates that show they have been trained in food safety.
- The egg carton is clean—inside and out. Make sure the eggs are clean and not cracked. Reused egg cartons are fine, if clean.
- Cold foods are cold. Meats, cheeses and other dairy, and eggs should be kept cold. Salads and cold sandwiches should feel like they’re straight from the fridge.
- Meat, poultry and fish are cooked to a safe temperature. The only way to determine a safe temperature for meat, poultry, or fish is by using a cooking thermometer. If you’re not sure, ask.
- Hot foods are hot. The “Danger Zone” for food (where bacteria multiply quickly) is between 40°F and 140°F. Cooked foods like soups and burgers should be piping hot.
- Samples are being safely handled. Vendors using gloves, tongs, tissues or other utensils are doing it right! (They shouldn’t be using bare hands.) Are knives, serving utensils, dishes and service surfaces kept clean? If not, take a pass on these foods.
- Ciders, juices and dairy products are pasteurized. Since unpasteurized foods are serious sources of foodborne pathogens, shoppers should ask when products, including the samples, are not clearly labeled.