Remember food safety at farmers markets
Spring begins the farmers market season in many areas. As consumers seek fresh produce and support local growers, they should follow general guidelines to make sure locally grown food is safe to eat.
Iowans shop at farmers markets for a variety of reasons, said Lindsay MacNab, a diet and exercise research assistant with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
“Many people take comfort in knowing where their food comes from and the process that it undergoes from farm to marketplace. Local farmers markets support green living and are environmentally friendly. Markets also build local communities—consumers establish positive relationships with other shoppers as well as local growers and their families,” MacNab said.
The Iowa Farmers’ Market Association says Iowa ranks fourth in having the greatest number of farmers markets statewide. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Iowa has an estimated 99,000 consumers and 1,500 producers who actively participate in local markets.
Local and federal regulations are in place to ensure food safety at the marketplace, but food safety is always a concern. Food contamination can occur while food is growing in the fields or during harvest, processing, packing or distribution, MacNab said.
“It’s important to know the farmers at your local market and talk with them about their farm food safety plan and the treatment their products undergo before reaching the market,” MacNab said.
Food safety shopping tips
MacNab offers the following tips for shopping at farmers markets:
Check fruits and vegetables for bruising and damage. Any cuts or holes are hot spots for microbial growth.
Before preparing or cooking fruits and vegetables, rinse the produce under cool running water, being sure to remove dust, soil and bugs.
Pay particular attention to spinach, salad greens, melons and any other produce that comes in contact with the ground; these items require greater food safety vigilance.
Milk, cheese, juices and ciders are required to have been pasteurized or treated prior to packaging. Canned goods (with the exception of jams and jellies) must come from a registered processing facility that has a license from local, state or federal authorities. “If you have any questions about a product, ask the vendor,” MacNab said.
“If you are unsure of food ingredients or have allergy concerns, check the product packaging. All food must be labeled with the common name of the item and both the name and address of the producer,” MacNab continued. The State of Iowa requires that the product label show the name, list of ingredients, name and address of the producer/distributor, net weight or volume, allergen information and nutrition information.
Pay close attention to ready-to-eat foods such as sandwiches, dips and other prepared samples. Ask the vendor how long the samples have been sitting out and how the food was prepared to ensure food safety.
Assess the sanitation and food safety practices of the vendor by checking the environment. If the vendor is located in the sun without shade, does not have a hand washing station or fails to promote cleanliness, the products may be more at risk for containing pathogens that may lead to foodborne illness, MacNab said.
Farmers markets throughout Iowa accept Food Assistance Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, known as EBT cards, said Sarah Francis, an Iowa State University assistant professor and ISU Extension and Outreach nutrition specialist.
Since the launch of the Wireless EBT Project in 2005, families receiving food assistance have been able to purchase healthy, locally grown food using their EBT card at local farmers markets. Vendors who accept EBT cards will have a sign saying they accept EBT, Francis said. Iowans can obtain a list of participating farmers’ markets and farmers at http://www.dhs.state.ia.us/docs/6.12._Brochure_Comm284.pdf.
Purchasing healthy food at farmers markets is a step toward Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative. This privately led public initiative is intended to inspire Iowans and their communities throughout the state to improve their health and happiness.
“Another step to help Iowa become the healthiest state in the nation is the Live Healthy Iowa 100-Day Challenge,” Francis said. This team-based weight loss and physical activity program helps Iowans make positive changes for a healthier lifestyle. For more information, visit www.LiveHealthyIowa.org. Live Healthy Iowa is a partnership of the Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa Sports Foundation and ISU Extension and Outreach.
For more information on nutrition and health or to receive a weekly email from ISU Extension and Outreach including a food, recipe and activity of the week, visit www.extension.iastate.edu/healthnutrition.