by Katie Navarra
Why food safety?
Providing farm products that are as safe as possible is important to assure customers that quality, safety and their health are important to you. Not only is it an obligation to provide safe food, but it can also be used as a good marketing tool to encourage other customers to shop at your farmer’s market or farm stand.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 6 get sick from foodborne illnesses, said Londa Nwadike, University of Vermont Extension Food Safety Specialist. “It (foodborne illnesses) are highly underreported,” she said, “there can be food borne illnesses from farmer’s markets products even though it doesn’t really show up on the (reporting) radar.”
Generally speaking, a healthy adult can consume some pathogens and not get sick. However, the young, the elderly, the pregnant, the sick, individuals with chronic illness, immune disorders and chemotherapy patients do not have the immune system to fight off pathogens.
Best safety practice #1
“Transport and store foods at the proper temperatures,” Nwadike said, “Maintaining the proper temperatures at the market and during transportation is key.”
Each State has varying regulations on acceptable food temperatures for foods sold at markets or distributed as samples. Regulations can even differ between counties. In Vermont, where Nwadike is based, hot prepared foods are required to be 135 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, though she personally prefers 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
Foods sold at room temperature including produce, canned goods, and baked goods are not considered highly perishable. “The proper temperatures for these foods are more about quality than safety,” she said.
Cold perishable foods including potato salads, dairy products should be maintained between 32-40 degrees and frozen foods should be kept at less than 15 degrees. “The most important thing is for every vendor to have a thermometer,” she emphasized.
Best safety practice #2
Minimize the possibility for cross-contamination.
“Ensure raw meat does not contact ready-to-eat food or produce,” she said, “if reusing (handle bags) ensure they are clean, no meat in it before, etc.” Often customers and/or friends donate plastic shopping bags to farms for use in the farm stand or at market. Rinse them or even wash in the washing machine before reusing.
When serving prepared foods at the market or market stand, wash, rinse and sanitize all equipment and utensils used in preparing, cooking or serving the food.
Best safety practice #3
Practice good personal hygiene.
“This is complicated if you are working at a market as one person, but remember you’re shaking hands, touching animals, accepting money, wash your hands often and wear gloves as needed,” she said.
Presenting a good image by wearing clean clothes and having clean clothes works well as a marketing tool as well.
Samples at farmer’s markets
Offering free samples at farmer’s markets is a great way to introduce customers to a product. However, before handing out samples, know the regulations. “Regulations vary. Some places don’t allow samples, others require training. Find out what applies,” Nwadike advised.
• When possible, prepare the samples at home. If cheese slices will be handed out, cut the cheese at home and place in a container with a lid to prevent contamination during transportation. Servers should always have a barrier between their hands and the food they are serving, whether it is gloves or tongs.
• It is difficult to prepare produce samples ahead of time because the quality suffers. “Use toothpicks in apple slices,” Nwadike recommended, “also, put out small amounts for quality and safety. It won’t dry out or pick up bacteria.”
• Post a list of ingredients
• Wash fresh fruits and vegetables that will be used as samples
• Display samples separate from what is sold so people’s hands do not accidentally touch samples
One resource on the topic of sampling is a publication by the University of Kentucky. It can be found at
Offering prepared foods or samples at farmer’s markets or on-site farm stands is an excellent opportunity to introduce customers to a variety of products. Remember, find out what labeling and distribution regulations apply for your area before getting started.