Huh? I am talking about farming, not that other job. Food safety on the farm has come under more scrutiny as we have had outbreaks traced back to fresh produce. The exposure to natural contaminants, such as bird droppings, wild pig feces, run-off water, etc is pretty hard to avoid when growing fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce in the raw form has not received a kill step of cooking to reduce bacterial loads.
So what is the answer? As a dietitian, I am all for increased fruit and vegetable consumption. The evidence is pretty clear increases of these foods and decreases of junk foods would mitigate a lot of health issues for Americans. Like many – I like fruits and vegetables that are uncooked or processed – but I take precautions. Washing my hands and washing the product before eating are two simple steps I can take as a consumer. Producers are also scaling up to improve on-farm food safety by using good agricultural practices (GAPs) and appropriate post-harvest handling procedures. An apple a day… hmm, not such bad advice.
It is the season here in the Midwest for fresh produce and other goodies from Farmer’s Markets. Maybe some of you in warmer climates enjoy these year round – but for us in cold country, the months between June and August are prime time for Farmer’s Market. More and more, people enjoy these as a way to try unique produce varieties or sample a truly fresh head of lettuce. To be sure you are experiencing a locally grown product, check the rules at the Farmer’s Market you attend – some do allow vendors to sell products purchased from wholesalers while others require products to be home grown. It is a decision each market makes.
Farmer’s Markets are popular – each year they increase in number and the products offered. Some even offer take-home meals (of course food is prepared in a licensed kitchen and the appropriate vendor permits are in place) in addition to fresh produce and baked goods. You see, it gets pretty complicated when sorting through the food safety regulations. While there are few regs regarding sale of fresh unprocessed produce, certainly we have had some illnesses from these foods – from tomatoes last year and lettuce in the past. What happens is these foods are grown in the soil (which is a reservoir for some harmful bacteria); irrigated or washed with contaminated water; exposed to pathogens from animals or pets; and/or handled improperly by humans. And because there is often not a kill step by cooking, we eat these products (with high levels of bacteria or viruses) and may become sick. While we can’t really control for the birds flying overhead, there are action steps we should expect from the producer (aka Good Agricultural Practices or GAPs) and action steps we should take.
This doesn’t mean we have to cook our lettuce (or as someone asked me – wash it in vodka) but it does mean we become alert consumers. Assess general cleanliness of the farmer vendor’s food stand and does the product look like it has been cleaned? Check that there ice chests to keep product cool during hot summer months (remember bacteria grows very quickly between 70° F and 135° F and when there is moisture). Product quality stays higher if it is kept cook – so really this is a win-win situation. Does the producer package items or do all the patrons have the opportunity to paw through – and spread any germs (Norovirus comes to mind) from their hands to the food?
Enjoy the Farmer Market experience and the unique varieties of produce offered – but wash your hands and wash the product before eating.