By: Heather Williams
Farmers Markets are a rising in popularity. This is a good thing for local farmers and artisans. Farmers Markets allow a direct to customer sales opportunity which puts more of the sales back into the farm. But without the administrative middle man, how can you be sure what you are getting at a Farmers Market is a safe product?
Did you know, each state has its own regulating authority and rules for how products can be sold at a Farmers Market? Check out http://forrager.com/laws to see how rules vary from state to state for cottage food (non-produce or commercial food) vendors and what requirements your state has for each category. A reputable market will ensure and often inspect farms and kitchens in which products sold originate. If you are concerned, check out the “become a vendor” link on your prospective Farmers Market webpage to see what that particular market requires. You may find that some market managers are often stricter than even the local regulations require.
While in the United States we have an expectation that food sold to us is safe, foodborne illness can occur from even trusted food sources. We are all responsible for our own food safety to inspect the food we buy and must handle, store, and cook it properly once we have the product. That being said, there are a few things that you can do to help make smart choices when shopping at your local Farmers Market.
Whether you pick your produce directly from the farmer, from the grocery store, or from your own garden, you should always inspect the produce carefully. Check for bruising or nicks that could allow surface bacteria to enter the product where it cannot be easily washed or possibly unable to be washed at all. For example, fleshy fruit such as watermelon, bananas, and peaches are not washed on the inside once cut. If bacteria enter the breach, they can multiply to illness producing numbers with no way of removing them.
While you’ve got a better shot at healthy produce from as small, local farm, or even from your own backyard for that matter, you cannot assume it is pathogen free. You must clean all produce items prior to eating or serving them. Recommendations vary from item to item, so take care to treat each product according to its restrictions and abilities. For example, lettuce should be thoroughly rinsed, while potatoes and other root vegetables should be thoroughly scrubbed and rinsed.
Ask the Farmer
The great thing about a Farmers Market is that you can often meet the farmer who grows the food face-to-face. This is a connection you just can’t get at a grocery store. Use this opportunity to learn where you food comes from, how they came to be a farmer, and their unique story. This also affords you the opportunity to ask about their growing practices. You’d be surprised how many farmers actually use organic methods but cannot label their products as such due to the cost hurdle of that green and white label.
Among your produce vendors you will also find cottage food booths as a staple at your local Farmers Market. Cottage foods are things like jams, jelly, salsa, pickles, and baked goods. These foods are a beloved value added product at a Farmers Market and generally safe. These non-temperature sensitive and “not potentially hazardous” foods fall outside of local regulatory jurisdiction, and therefore can be prepared in a home kitchen instead of an inspected commercial kitchen.
Cottage foods coming from a home kitchen should be clearly labeled as such. While the wording may vary from place to place, it should essentially explain to the customer that the food is prepared in a home kitchen that is not inspected by a local health department. The address should also be included as well as a list of ingredients and potential allergens.
How can you be sure the cottage food is safe to eat? Any food that you do not prepare yourself has an elevated risk. However, there are a few steps you can take to inspect the food prior to purchasing and consuming it. Always inspect the packaging. If the item is canned, ensure a proper seal is intact prior to consuming. You can chat with the person who made the product and ask questions. If in doubt, pass it up. You should always listen to your gut.
While many states require a cottage food handler’s license that involves a brief class, the actual hygiene practices and cleanliness of the kitchen are unknown. But then again, I see a weekly publicly published restaurant report that tells me that even large inspected kitchens sometimes have hygiene and pest control problems.
Another vendor you might find at a Farmers Market is a commercial food vendor. These could be foods prepared in a food truck, foods prepared off-site at a commercial kitchen and prepped at the market, and sometimes can be prepared on-site. These foods do not fall under the “not potentially hazardous” foods category so these vendors have many other requirements to sell this food to the public.
To ensure you are consuming safe food, check to see that they have appropriate handwashing tools. This could be as simple as a free flowing faucet from a water dispenser, soap, and a bucket to catch the waste. If food is prepared onsite a three compartment sink is also required. This may not look like a traditional stainless steel sink, but three separate buckets with soapy water, a water rinse, and sanitizer must be present to clean cooking tools. Check for those handling food to use gloves and never use those gloves to handle money. A commercial food vendor should also have appropriate licensing visible to the public. This could be a manufacturing license for the kitchen, food handler permits, and/or food permits from the local jurisdiction.
Always Keep Food Safety in Mind
Shopping local is always a good thing. Enjoy the experience of your trip to your local Farmers Market. Shopping local from farmers and artisans puts more money back into your local economy than shopping from a grocery or big box store. Always keep food safety in mind, but know that your small purchase has big consequences.