Farmers markets are a great place to buy healthy local produce and other foods, meet and support local farmers, and enjoy shopping in a fun environment. But shoppers should also pay attention to food safety when buying and using foods from farmers markets.
“Because the experience level of the vendors with food safety practices may vary greatly, the consumer needs to take a bit more active role in deciding what products to buy and from which vendors,” says Londa Nwadike, extension consumer food safety specialist for MU and Kansas State University.
“Make sure the produce is clean, that it looks fresh, that it’s a nice, intact piece of produce,” she says. “If you’re buying cut or peeled produce, make sure that it’s surrounded by ice or is being kept cold.”
When looking at meats, eggs, and cheese to purchase, it’s important to make sure that the products are either in a cooler or on ice, Nwadike says. These products need to be kept cold to maintain their freshness.
Another item to study carefully is milk. “If you’re buying milk at a farmers market, it is a regulatory requirement that the milk sold at the farmers market has to be pasteurized,” she says. “Check with the vendor and ask if it’s pasteurized, just to be sure. Pasteurized is much safer.”
Nwadike recommends looking for clues that can tell you about the vendor’s food safety practices. Surfaces and any knives or other utensils should be clean. Workers should have clean hands and clothing. Look for a hand-washing station in the booth, particularly in booths selling prepared foods or offering samples.
At both farmers markets and grocery stores, you’ll often see food marketed under such terms as “organic,” “natural,” “local” or “sustainable.” There’s a certain amount of understandable confusion about what these terms actually mean, Nwadike says.
Some terms are regulated at the state or federal level. Other terms aren’t regulated, though individual farmers markets may have their own rules, such as what qualifies as “locally produced.”
“If something is certified organic and it has the USDA organic seal on it, then we know it has met certain criteria,” she says. “If something just says ‘grown organically’ at a farmers market, for example, you’ll have to ask the farmer what that means and what sort of practices he or she was using.”
“Natural” only means that there are no added ingredients and that the product has been minimally processed, and that only applies to meat. “There is no regulated definition for ‘natural’ for anything other than meat products,” Nwadike says.
“More general terms such as ‘local,’ ‘sustainable’ and ‘artisan’ do not have a regulated definition,” she adds. “Checking with the farmer is the best way to know for sure what a lot of those terms mean.”
Printable MU Extension fact sheets available for download:
- Shopping Safely at Farmers Markets (N1301), http://extension.missouri.edu/p/N1301.
- Regulations for Selling Safe Canned Foods in Missouri (N1304), http://extension.missouri.edu/p/N1304.
- Food Labeling for Missouri Food Producers and Processors (N1305), http://extension.missouri.edu/p/N1305.
For more information from MU Extension on food safety, including feature articles, learning opportunities and answers to frequently asked questions, go to www.MissouriFamilies.org/foodsafety.