Hygiene standards not up to the mark at farmers' markets

(Reuters Health) - Vendors at farmers’ markets could benefit from lessons in food-safety, according to researchers at Pennsylvania State University.

The researchers visited farmers’ markets across the state and clocked unsafe vendor practices that could potentially spread foodborne illnesses. They also surveyed the vendors and compared the responses with their own observations and those of state health inspectors.

The findings, published in Food Protection Trends, show a discrepancy between how vendors said they conducted themselves and how they were observed conducting themselves, by both state sanitarians and researchers involved in the study.

For example, 34.2 percent of surveyed vendors self-reported using disposable gloves. But direct observations by researchers showed less than 24 percent of vendors had disposable gloves at vending stands. Within the group of vendors observed to be using disposable gloves, slightly less than half used them improperly.

These results suggest there may be a general lack of understanding among vendors on when to use disposable gloves, when to change them and what practices are unacceptable while wearing gloves, the paper notes.

“If you look at how farmer’s markets are set up, they’re just sometimes pop-up tents that have coolers with food or tables with plastic tablecloths on them,” Catherine Cutter, an author on the study, told Reuters Health over the phone. “Little things like using a cleanable or disposable table cloth, because wood surfaces are difficult to clean and can be sources for bacterial contamination, can help. Those kinds of things are very simple and relatively inexpensive.”

Cutter and colleagues estimate in their paper that in the U.S. alone, there are over 8,500 farmers markets, where vendors sell fresh produce, ready-to-eat snacks, meat and seafood.

But given that these markets generally take place outdoors and lack permanent infrastructure, access to hand-washing facilities is often limited. Vendors were observed eating, coughing or sneezing and then handling raw or ready-to-eat food without washing their hands.

“Lack of adequate handwashing stations and improper glove usage were probably the biggest problems we observed because there are opportunities for cross-contamination,” Cutter said.

“The question of how food is handled at farmers markets is important. Given the growth in farmers markets, people are able to buy more than just raw fruits and vegetables,” said Carolyn Dimitri, who was not involved in the study.

Dimitri is an Associate Professor of Food Studies at New York University. She found the results of the study unsurprising but said it was unclear which of the results were statistically significant.

Based on observations made during the study, the research team designed a curriculum on food safety practices that vendors could benefit from.

“We have developed a four-hour face-to-face or online class on farmer’s market food safety specifically for vendors, that builds on the things that we saw in the study as problematic,” Cutter said. “The program discusses the rationale for why you need to change your gloves and wash your hands when handling money and food.”

Data of this sort is also useful for policy-making and the structuring of guidelines, said Dr. Senaka Ranadheera, a food scientist at the University of Melbourne, who was not involved in the study.

“The study was designed very well... Many foodborne diseases ... are associated with steps in the food production chain, from farm to fork. Mishandling at any stage would cause serious issues related to food safety concerns.”

SOURCE: Food Protection Trends, online November 1, 2018.