Traveling throughout Pennsylvania in the summer and fall, you don't have to go far to find a roadside stand or farmers market touting baskets of colorful fruits and vegetables.
"Farmers markets are undoubtedly an important -- and historical -- part of agriculture," said Sharon McDonald, senior extension educator and food safety specialist, when referring to the 310 markets in the state. "As these food venues continue to blossom -- fueled by demand for locally grown and produced foods -- so does the need to educate consumers about potential food safety hazards."
Her assertion stems from research conducted by food scientists in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences in 2015, led by Catherine Cutter, professor of food science and Penn State Extension assistant director for food safety and quality programs.
The study, which took place at five farmers markets in four cities, assessed food safety knowledge, behaviors and attitudes among farmers-market consumers by means of a 34-question survey. Questions gauged consumers' understanding of microbial hazards in foods typically available at farmers markets, proper cooking and cooling temperatures, and food storage.
The results of that data collection indicated gaps in consumers' food safety knowledge and food- handling practices, a circumstance that can place them -- and their families -- at increased risk for developing a foodborne illness.
The researchers also discovered that the majority of respondents believed that food sold at farmers markets was safer than food found at commercial supermarkets, a notion that McDonald does not find surprising.
"Considering that many farmers markets are outdoors, lack permanent infrastructure, and have limited access to food safety instruments such as hand sinks and refrigerators, it is important for consumers to understand these added challenges when it comes to food safety," she said.
Before slinging a reusable bag over your shoulder and embarking on your next outdoor food shopping adventure, McDonald suggests following these tips, which were developed based on the study findings:
- Before buying anything, take a quick loop around the grounds. "The first thing I do when I go to a farmers market is look at the overall cleanliness of the vendor stands," McDonald said. Things that catch her eye immediately are uncovered food samples, hovering insects and soiled display areas.
- Do not buy bruised or damaged produce because it is prone to bacterial contamination. The exception is what McDonald called "misshapen," which means that the produce is not damaged, but is unusually shaped.
- Speak with the vendor/farmer about how the food was grown; check for license and registrations. "Don't be afraid to ask questions, and if you're not comfortable with the answers, politely move on to the next vendor," she advised.
- If you plan to buy raw meats or other perishable items, make sure you have a cooler loaded with ice. Separate raw meats from other foods to avoid cross-contamination -- an absolute must not only at markets, but at home as well.
- Pay attention to ready-to-eat foods such as sandwiches, cut fruits and samples. Cold foods should be cold, and hot foods should be hot. Make sure that food handlers have a barrier between their hands and the food during handling.
- While many markets offer unpasteurized dairy products -- such as raw milk and cheeses -- and unpasteurized juices, McDonald advises against consuming these products.
- After bringing your purchases home, store foods either in the refrigerator or on the counter, depending on the item. Some fruits and vegetables, such nectarines, peaches and tomatoes, can be stored on the counter until ripe and then refrigerated. Refrigerate eggs, dairy products and meats, posthaste.
- Finally, make sure to wash produce right before using, and cook foods to the proper internal temperature, especially meats. Egg dishes and ground meats must be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; poultry and fowl to 165 F; and steaks, chops and roasts to 145 F.
"Now that we're in the thick of farmers market season, these tips are particularly timely, but they really should be followed anytime and anywhere a food purchase is made," McDonald noted. "Being food-safety savvy can prevent foodborne illness year-round."
More information for consumers on proper food handling and storage and safe cooking temperatures is available at Penn State Extension Food Safety webpage
In addition, extension educators and specialists provide educational programs on a wide array of food safety topics from farm to table. Information on these programs also is available on the food safety website or by contacting your local county Penn State Extension office.