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Market managers can make farmers markets safer

 Bevan Linsley, Farmers Market Manager; Sarah Lester, Farm Fresh Markets Coordinator; Ken Ayars, RI Div. of Ag. Chief; Lori Pivarnik, URI Food Safety/Research Nutrition & Food Science Coordinator & Cathy Payne Feeney, RI Dept. of Health
Bevan Linsley, Farmers Market Manager; Sarah Lester, Farm Fresh Markets Coordinator; Ken Ayars, RI Div. of Ag. Chief; Lori Pivarnik, URI Food Safety/Research Nutrition & Food Science Coordinator & Cathy Payne Feeney, RI Dept. of HealthSanne Kure-Jensen

“We’re riding the wave of the local food movement,” said Bevan Linsley, Farmers Market Manager and conference organizer. This conference focused on tools market managers could use to improve food safety for a long and prosperous season.

Janet Coit, RI DEM Director and Ken Ayars, RI Division of Agriculture Chief offered opening remarks at the Farmers Market Manager Conference, held at the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) headquarters In Providence, RI.

Coit shared her excitement at RI having more than 50 farmers markets this summer. As farmers increase local production, their customers help grow the local economy and protect farmland and open space. She reminded attendees “RI Governor Chafee wants to encourage small business owners; farms are small businesses that result in thousands of jobs. The Governor loves to be on the land and to promote local Ag businesses.” Last year the RI Legislature established a RI Food Policy Council and recently created an Interagency Food Council. The budget before the legislature this session includes funding for a new grant program intended to help develop and market local agriculture.

Ayars told participants that when Farmers Markets include prepared or baked goods, the markets require “Special Food Events” permits and vendors need a food business license pursuant to RI Department of Health rules. Different rules and regulations apply than those of Farmers Markets selling only raw produce. Individually wrapped baked goods must be labeled with their ingredients (in order of volume), nutritional content and allergy warnings (nuts, dairy, etc.) Any farmers market vendor selling items other than produce (whole, uncut) needs a license. Market Managers are responsible to tell the state who will be at their markets. It will be up to the state to oversee their licenses and verify their compliance.

Food Safety

Lori Pivarnik, Ph.D. URI’s Food Safety/Research Nutrition and Food Science Coordinator, spoke on Managing Food Safety at Farmers’ Markets. More people are eating fresh produce amid growing nutritional awareness. Sadly, there is also an increase in the number of food-borne illness outbreaks. Some problems are caused by improper consumer handling or cross-contamination. Risks can be vastly reduced through careful growing, harvest, processing and selling practices.

A food recall can hurt an industry, as the national spinach recall did in 2006. The most outbreaks were related to seafood and fresh produce, followed by poultry. Leafy greens accounted for more total foodborne illnesses and more people ill per outbreak. Spinach and spring mixes were blamed for 32 cases of Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) leading to chronic illness, and affecting victims for life. Poultry accounted for fewer outbreaks but led all categories for number of deaths. In 2011, strawberries grown on a small farm were contaminated by wildlife, causing 15 people to become ill and one death in Oregon.

Large operations have more hands touching products and outbreaks have greater impacts. However, record keeping may be easier for small operations since they have more control with less to track than giant farm operations. It can be easier to keep track of all the variables and risks in a small operation with a small land area and small number of staff.

Pivarnik recommended farmers always think about what is going on uphill of your fields, water source or processing facility. This is one of the best ways to protect against food contamination – look around you.

Microbial contaminants can come from wild animal feces, livestock manures or carcasses, people, air, plants and contaminated water. Processing lines should be cleaned and sanitized between produce classes. Trucks should be cleaned and sanitized routinely and especially between meats and produce.

Variable conditions can trigger growth of pathogens to dangerous levels. Some contaminants can lay dormant for as long as 250 days in soils threatening contamination and illness to people.

Reduce Risks

At the Farm - Farm practices focused on prevention can vastly reduce the risks of food contamination. Pivarnik recommended farmers seek GAP training and certification. On-farm programs monitor and protect water quality, manure composting and careful timing of spreading composted manures for soils fertility. Careful tool cleaning and sanitizing (as needed), hand washing, good harvesting and processing practices and proper temperature control as appropriate after harvest can significantly improve food safety. More buyers and states require “Traceback” systems.

At the Market - Pivarnik encourages market managers to take these minimal precautions at their markets:

  • Be sure all vendors have access to ice made from potable water; clean and sanitize icemakers routinely.
  • Mist produce with spray bottles of potable water to keep them cool.
  • Ensure hand-washing station available. A dedicated coffee urn can be used for hot water (adjust temperature).
  • Keep boxes or bins of food off the ground.
  • Eggs must be refrigerated or stored in coolers at or below 41 degrees.
  • Do not allow pets or petting zoos at or near farmers markets.
  • Ask vendors to have dedicated people handling money, raw meats or produce. If not, they should use gloves to avoid cross-contamination with produce or ready-to-eat foods. Hand sanitizers are not nearly as effective as washing hands properly. Using individual sheets of waxed paper or tongs are best for food handling.
  • Ask vendors not to sell produce with many bruises (seconds). This can reduce customers’ risk of food-borne illness.
  • Be sure coolers with ice have drains so foods do not float in liquids..

Market Managers should include recommended practices, sanitation guidelines and state regulations in their vendor packets. Consumers will benefit from well-trained vendors and farmers.

Farmers Markets

Consumers value the freshness and wholesomeness of their local farmers markets. Every state has different rules over food safety at farmers markets. Nearly 8,000 farmers markets were registered with the USDA in 2012. Many states do not have adequate inspectors. RI recently hired additional inspectors to verify food safety at markets and restaurants and will be making proactive, not just reactive visits after complaints.

Marketing

Customers value farmers and market vendors who pay attention to food safety. Pivarnik suggested farmers promote their food safety efforts and GAP certification.

Low Risk Foods

Cathy Payne Feeney, RI Department of Health Compliance Evaluation/Standardization Officer, described low risk foods that do not require refrigeration at markets:

  • Yeast breads
  • Double crusted pies
  • Jams, jellies, preserved with acid or vinegar (need pH < 4.6)
  • Maple syrup
  • Candies and fudge
  • Dried herbs and spices

Higher Risk Foods

Payne Feeney said these food categories are potentially hazardous; they require refrigeration during transportation and at markets.

  • Eggs
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Cooked rice, beans or vegetables, baked potatoes
  • Raw sprouts
  • Tofu and soy-protein products
  • Untreated garlic and oil mixtures
  • Cut melons

Food Safety Manager Certification and Value Added Foods

RI offers this 15-hour course, exam and certification or anyone who will be preparing potentially hazardous foods. This license must be renewed every three years by taking a recertification class. All processed foods sold at farmers markets must be prepared in licensed kitchens, not farm kitchens or home kitchens. Check with local health departments for similar offerings in other states.

Food Sampling

Marketing people agree this is the best way to increase sales. Food safety experts agree samples introduce a huge risk. Consumers may handle or cough on food they leave do not take from sample trays. Consumers do not always see a full ingredient lists; they could be exposed to potential allergens.

Liability

If there is an outbreak of food-borne illness, lawyers go after the farmers, farm hands, farmers’ market managers, the state inspectors…everyone associated with the product sales stream. Learn more about risks at farmersmarketcoalition.org.

Contacts

To learn more about Food Safety, email Lori Pivarnik at pivarnik@uri.edu or call 401-874-2972, or email Catherine Payne Feeney at catherine.payne-feeney@health.ri.gov or call 401-222-2749.

To learn more on the Farmers Market Manager Conference or to join the attendee list serve, email Bevan Linsley, Aquidneck Growers Market (aquidneckgrowersmarket.org) at aquidneckgrowersmarket@verizon.net or call (401) 932-9007, or email Sarah Lester, Farm Fresh Rhode Island (www.farmfreshri.org) at sarah@farmfreshri.org or call (401) 312-4250.

A similar story ran in the March 2014 Eastern edition of Country Folks Grower.