Safe food sampling at farmers markets

by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Producers know that farmers markets are great places to showcase their wares — and distributing free samples is an excellent way to bring customers in to purchase those wares.
In a recent 2018 webinar presented by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), ‘safe food sampling guidelines’ were outlined.
Michelle Gagliardi, Programs Director, Michigan Farmers Market Association and Mandi Cooley Regional Supervisor, Food and dairy division MDARD led the discussion, with vendor Danielle Welke of MI Ice Pops providing details and photographs of her sampling process.
MDARD safe sampling rules and regulations were presented by Cooley.
“Vendors are exempt from licensing,” said Cooley, “but they are not exempt from food safety.”
Although no licensing is required at farmers markets in Michigan, vendors are still subject to following regulations and best safety practices must be followed.
The biggest two concerns are personal hygiene and temperature control.
It is recommended to prepare samples ahead of time in a licensed kitchen. Samples should be placed in individual containers or bags and transported to the market.
Cottage food vendors currently fall into this same category in Michigan. It is important to note that states vary in their regulations, so consulting with your specific farmers market manager for rules and regulations is your first required step before bringing samples to your farm booth.
Review state mandatory guidelines and provide supplies required to meet those guidelines, while developing a system that works for you and your product.
“If we don’t have a licensed kitchen to operate out of or you’re not operating under Cottage Food Law, or for quality’s sake you just don’t want to prep those samples ahead of time, the next best way is to prep on site,” said Cooley.
However, when preparing samples on site, you will be inspected as a temporary food establishment and expected to be in compliance with those regulations.
A clean and sanitized work surface in an area that is protected from contamination is the first requirement.
“We talk about contamination being anything from environmental sources, pests, or even the consumers.”
Food prep areas must be separate and protected.
No bare hand contact is allowed with food samples and hand-washing facilities must be available and used frequently. Using tongs, tissue paper or gloves are all acceptable.
Clean outer garments, hair pulled back, no eating, smoking or handling animals during the prepping and serving are rules to be followed.
Having several clean cutting boards and assorted utensils available are recommended for frequent switching out.
“We recommend to switch them out or wash and sanitize after two hours, but four hours is actually the requirement by law.”
Washing, rinsing and sanitizing on site is acceptable. Guidelines are available for setting up a temporary wash station.
Fresh fruit and vegetables must be washed prior to sampling. This requires an onsite water source if prepping on site.
Temperature control for food safety is of major concern when providing food samples.
“Have a thermometer on site.”
Foods that require refrigeration and foods that must be maintained at a hot temperature are of concern for safety.
For refrigerated foods internal temperatures must be maintained at 41 degrees F or below throughout the entire sampling time.
Cut melons, cut tomatoes and leafy greens are potentially hazardous and must be kept at or below 41 degrees during transportation, holding and sampling. It is critical that internal temperatures are accurate.
When products are kept on ice, the ice must be continuously draining and not accumulating standing water, which can potentially cause contamination to the products.
Ice packs are a good substitute for ice and medical ice packs have been found to be suitable for this purpose.
Holding temperatures on hot foods must be 135 degrees F or above.
Temperatures must be monitored.
It is mandatory that food and individual samples are protected from customers’ coughing, sneezing or any other possibility of contamination, such as insects or debris brought in by wind.
It is also “very important” that vendors do not prep, handle or serve food to the public if they are unwell or experiencing any type of flu-like symptoms themselves.
“Wash your hands and wash them often,” remarked Cooley.
If hand-washing facilities are not available, bring your own. Guidelines and suggestions are available on the MDARD website, but usually a jug of hot water, soap and disposable towels are sufficient.
Knowing when to wash your hands is also important. Switching between tasks? Handling money and preparing and serving samples? You will require a lot of hand washing.
Overhead protection in the form of a canopy, tent or permanent structure is required and floors in the form of rubber mats, tarps or some other acceptable flooring is also required.
A covered garbage can is recommended.
“You will see inspectors out at markets this summer,” Cooley commented.
When an inspector shows up at the market, expect to be approached and expect to have a conversation with them.
“It is our job to try to stop at every vendor at the market and at least have a conversation and talk a little bit about what the vendor is doing. And if they are sampling, we certainly will have some questions and just make some observations to make sure they are doing it safely.”
When a first time problem is detected, a verbal warning is the typical result, with a discussion about best practices to resolve the issue at the time.
If vendors are unable to comply at the time, they may lose their right to serve samples on that day.
“The inspector will work with that vendor to get them into compliance for next time and more than likely the market manager will be informed of what the observations were and how we can gain compliance in the future.”
When a serious threat to consumer safety is observed; more serious steps will be taken.
“We do have the ability to place the product under seizure and disposed of.” However, Cooley said this is a rare occurrence.
Although not yet regulated, allergens, such as peanuts, should be labeled. When sampling, consumers should be at least verbally informed on any allergens, due to potentially serious heath concerns.
“The Michigan Farmers Market Association is a member-based, statewide association with a mission to advance farmers markets to create a thriving marketplace for local food and farm products.”
For more information contact Gagliardi at michelle@mifma.org or www.mifma.org .

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