Farmers markets, like the one in Houston, 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, says a University of Missouri Extension food safety specialist.

“Farmers markets are great and I encourage people to shop at them, but the experience level of the vendors with food safety practices may vary greatly,” says Londa Nwadike, extension consumer food safety specialist for MU and Kansas State University.

“The consumer needs to take a bit more active role in deciding what products to buy and from which vendors,” she says.

Nwadike notes that supermarkets normally have strict food safety inspection and control systems in place to protect their brand. They also have the advantage of a temperature-controlled environment.

“At a farmers market, the same food safety systems may not be in place,” she says. “At some farmers markets, the manager is very actively encouraging food safety, but at others the managers are volunteers and may not have time to check on food safety.”

Farmers markets do have one food safety advantage, she says. “You can ask the vendors questions about their food safety practices, which you usually can’t do at a supermarket.”

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.

More tips while shopping:

  • Fresh produce should be clean, look fresh, have no cuts or nicks, and be displayed off the ground or floor.
  • Cut or peeled produce should be on or surrounded by ice and look fresh and cold.
  • Meat, eggs and cheeses should be in a cooler or on ice. Packages must feel cold. Egg cartons should be clean and eggs not cracked.
  • Milk should be pasteurized for safety. Ask vendor to confirm.
  • Canned fruits and vegetables should be processed appropriately for the type of product. Ask vendor how they were handled and prepared.
  • Hot prepared foods should have a lid and be warm enough that you can see steam rising from the pan. Preferably, you should see vendors using a thermometer to check food temperature.

You also want to make sure your food stays safe on the way home:

  • Keep raw meat separate from other foods.
  • Make the market your last stop before going home.
  • Use a cooler or insulated bags, especially if it takes more than an hour to get home.

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