An MU Extension expert recommends that when shopping at farmers markets, consumers take an active role in deciding what products to buy, and from which vendors, because the experience level of the vendors with food safety practices can greatly vary.

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, says a University of Missouri Extension food safety specialist.

“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,” said 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. 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 said. 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,” Nwadike said. “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.

MARKETING TERMS

At both farmers markets and grocery stories, 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 said.

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,” Nwadike said. “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 said.

“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.”

FARMERS MARKETS 101

 

• 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.

For more information, call the MU Extension office in Houston at 417-967-4545.

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 http://MissouriFamilies.org/foodsafety.

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