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Many vendors at farmers markets take inadequate precautions to prevent the spread of foodborne illness, and they should be trained to reduce food-safety risks, according to Penn State researchers who completed the final phase of an innovative five-year study. Their findings were published recently in Food Protection Trends.
Using a comprehensive three-way approach, the research assessed food safety behaviors at Pennsylvania farmers markets using direct concealed observations, state sanitarian observations, and self-reported vendor surveys.
“We found that our direct field observations and inspector findings were very similar, yet very different from what most vendors said they were doing—their self-reported behaviors,” said Cathy Cutter, professor of food science in the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. “There was a chasm, if you will, between what we and the inspectors saw, and what vendors reported they were doing.”
According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 40% of farmers markets are selling prepared foods, 66% meat or poultry, and 16% fish or seafood. “These significant changes in the kinds of foods sold at farmers markets present new food-safety challenges and implications,” said lead researcher Joshua Scheinberg, now director of food safety and quality assurance with Godshall’s Quality Meats in Telford, Pa. The research was his doctoral thesis. “As a result, several studies have revealed high-risk food-safety factors unique to farmers markets and farmers market vendors. We also saw problems.”
In the study, researchers checked select samples of leafy green produce and meat obtained from farmers markets in Pennsylvania for the presence of hygiene indicators—coliforms, fecal coliforms, Listeria, and E. coli—and found cause for concern. E. coli was present in 40% (20 of 50) of beef samples and 18% (9 of 50) of pork samples, and in 28% (15 of 54) of kale samples, 29% (15 of 52) of lettuce samples, and 17% (8 of 46) of spinach samples. They found Listeria in 8% (4 of 50) of beef samples, 2% (1 of 54) of kale samples, 4% (2 of 52) of lettuce samples, and 7% (3 of 46) of spinach samples.