Food Safety at Farmers Markets: A Reality Check
By Joshua Scheinberg, M.Sc., and Catherine Cutter, Ph.D
It’s no secret that Americans like their local farmers markets. As the local food movement continues to gain momentum, these unique sources of agricultural products and foods may very well become a significant and integrated part of our current food system. For now, farmers markets and other sources of farmer-to-consumer sales, or what is officially referred to as “direct-to-consumer marketing,” account for less than 1 percent of total agricultural sales in the U.S. Since the early 1990s, the U.S. has experienced a steady increase in the number of farmers markets, with approximately 8,144 farmers markets in 2013, as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service. So what kinds of food products are consumers buying at farmers markets? Without a doubt, fruit and vegetable sales dominate the farmers market landscape, but these trends may be changing. In 2007, the USDA Economic Research Service reported that although farmers who sell livestock products via direct-to-consumer made up only 9. percent of all direct sales, sales from those farmers totaled $377 million, the highest among all product categories. Beef farmers alone totaled 35,984 direct sales in 2007, nearly double the amount of sales of fruit and vegetable growers. Likewise, the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” Chef Survey listed locally sourced meats and seafood as the number one menu trend for 2014. This growing trend toward buying and selling meat and poultry products direct from the farmer has obvious positive economic benefits. However, with more and more farmers moving into the business of slaughtering, processing, packaging, transporting and selling their own meat and poultry, it is becoming more evident that these products are quite different from their supermarket counterparts, generally unregulated and may come with their own new set of food safety risks.
What’s the Real Risk?
To date, no outbreaks or recalls from farmers markets have been associated with meat or poultry products. Unbeknownst to many, outbreaks from foods purchased at farmers markets are more common than one might expect. In 2008, 18 people fell ill to Campylobacter infections after consuming contaminated raw bagged peas sold at five south-central Alaskan farmers markets. In 2010, a vendor selling guacamole, salsa and tamales at several Iowa farmers markets was the cause of a Salmonella outbreak that sickened 25 people. Strawberries sold at roadside stands and several farmers markets in Oregon made headlines as the source of an Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened 16 people and caused 1 death in 2011. Contaminated raw milk, sold at a Pennsylvanian farm and other retail operations in the state, was the source of a large Campylobacter outbreak, sickening 38 people in 2012. In January 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed 14 cases of Salmonella that were attributed to “cashew cheese,” which was sold in several farmers markets in California’s Sacramento County, as well as other retail markets in California, Nevada and Wyoming. In addition to these reported outbreaks, the California Department of Food and Agriculture recalled raw cream sold at several farmers markets and retail outlets in the Fresno, CA, area in 2007 due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination. Similarly in 2012, cheese tested positive for L. monocytogenes after being sampled by the Washington State Department of Agriculture, resulting in recalls from farmers markets in three counties. In February 2014, a farmers market vendor was also the first to be convicted under Michigan’s Food Law after he pled guilty to willful misbranding and adulteration of food products. This conviction was the result of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with the vendor’s apple cider sold at a Michigan farmers market, which sickened four, including two children. After being cited by the Michigan Department of Agriculture for being an unlicensed cider processor and producing cider under unsafe production standards, the vendor continued to produce and sell his cider until he was charged with criminal negligence for producing food that caused illness and injury to unsuspecting consumers.
Although surprising, these instances of foodborne illness, recalls and criminal negligence clearly indicate that we have not fully grasped the severity of food safety risks associated with farmers markets and direct-to-consumer marketing. What about meat and poultry sales at farmers markets? Since individual farmers markets typically have a much smaller percentage of meat and poultry vendors, and these raw products are typically cooked by the consumer, we are not finding as many instances of foodborne illness associated with raw meat and poultry sold at farmers markets. This is not to say that these products pose little risk. In fact, several researchers demonstrated that raw meat and poultry products sold direct-to-consumer may carry higher concentrations of harmful bacteria compared with those produced commercially and sold at retail stores.
A Microbiological Assessment of Poultry Sold at Farmers Markets
In an effort to delve deeper into the issue, researchers at Penn State University investigated the prevalence of pathogens in poultry sold at farmers markets in Pennsylvania. Scheinberg et al. focused on poultry for this study, due in part to the exemption status afforded to many farmers under the U.S. Poultry Product Inspection Act (PPIA). PPIA allows processors who raise, slaughter and process no more than 20,000 birds (chicken, turkey or other fowl) in a year to operate without daily and/or bird-by-bird USDA inspection. In other words, PPIA allows farmers who raise fewer than 20,000 birds per year to slaughter on site, process, package and sell their poultry product directly to the public at farmers markets, with little regulatory oversight. Some states may have additional requirements for poultry and meat processing, but regulations vary between states and are generally less stringent than federal regulations. It is important to note that other species (cow, goat, sheep and pigs) fall under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and therefore must be slaughtered and processed at a USDA-inspected facility, regardless of the number raised, slaughtered or processed in a year. Even the smallest farmers market vendor of red meat must have the USDA seal on his or her packages of meat; the same can’t be said of poultry products.
Over the period of 1 year, 100 whole chickens from 21 farmers market vendors, located in 17 cities in Pennsylvania were collected, transported to the laboratory and analyzed to determine the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter. During this study, 50 nonorganic, conventionally processed whole chickens, as well as 50 organically processed whole chickens sold at large retail supermarkets in Pennsylvania, were collected and analyzed for the same pathogens. The results, which were published in the Journal of Food Safety, revealed that 28 percent of chickens collected from farmers markets were positive for Salmonella, while 90 percent were contaminated with Campylobacter. This finding is in contrast to the 8 percent of conventional whole chickens that were positive for Salmonella and 52 percent that were positive for Campylobacter. Approximately 20 percent of the organic chickens purchased at the supermarkets tested positive for Salmonella, with 28 percent positive for Campylobacter. Although these results may be surprising to some, it is important to remember that the whole chickens tested in this study were raw products, and if cooked properly to an internal temperature of 165°F, the pathogens would be destroyed. Nevertheless, the high levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter could increase the risk of cross-contamination between the chicken and other ready-to-eat foods (e.g., produce) during transport from the market and during home preparation. Even if consumers take proper precautions to avoid cross-contamination at the market and in the kitchen, the use of a properly calibrated thermometer is essential to determine when that older, heritage breed chicken purchased at the farmers market will be fully cooked and safe for consumption.
USDA Farmers Market in Washington, DC
Poultry sold at farmers markets in Washington, DC, also were the focal point of a national news story after chicken sold at the USDA headquarters farmers market tested positive for Salmonella. In 2010, a local Washington news station hired a federally licensed private laboratory to test chicken sold at the USDA’s sponsored farmers market, located in front of the agency’s headquarters. Three chickens were sampled from one vendor at this farmers market. Although a small sample, all three chickens were positive for Salmonella. At another nearby market, additional chickens purchased from another vendor tested positive for Campylobacter. When both vendors were interviewed after this incident, neither believed there was anything wrong with their poultry processing or handling practices. Additionally, it was discovered that the market manager had no knowledge that these poultry vendors were exempt from USDA inspection, under the auspices of PPIA, and assumed they were inspected similar to red meat producers.
Pasture-Raised Poultry: Is There a Difference?
The local food movement has produced many cascading effects, many of which are beginning to influence how farmers raise their livestock. One of the more popular movements is this concept of pasture-raised poultry. Don’t confuse pasture-raised poultry with free-range, grass-fed, cage-free or humanely raised poultry. Although it sometimes seems as if these terms are used to describe the same thing, “pasture-raised” has not been officially defined by the USDA or any other U.S. government body. On the other hand, “free-range,” “grass-fed,” “cage-free” and “humanely raised” poultry have been defined by the USDA. So it’s best to ask your poultry vendor or farmer exactly what his or her label means. Generally speaking, “pasture-raised poultry” refers to poultry that have been allowed access to fresh pasture, either through a movable pen system or by allowing poultry to roam free in a confined pastured area. It is also important to note that a majority of farmers who pasture-raise poultry and sell that poultry direct-to-consumer are processing those birds under the PPIA exemption status described previously, with little to no oversight during the slaughter, processing, packaging and/or storage. Many consumers typically perceive this kind of poultry production as more humane, healthier and resulting in a better quality product, but what about safety? To begin to answer this question, researchers at the University of Georgia, University of Arkansas, Oklahoma State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service investigated the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter from pasture-raised broilers processed on-farm versus in a USDA-inspected facility. The results, published in Food Control, revealed that of the 120 pasture-raised chickens processed on-farm, 89 percent of those processed carcasses were positive for Salmonella versus 43 percent in the USDA-inspected facility. Additionally, 70 percent of on-farm-processed poultry were positive for Campylobacter, versus 82 percent in the USDA-inspected facilities. In a related study, Martinez et al. found that among 36 retail chicken carcasses produced by pasture-raising farms, 50 percent were positive for Salmonella. An additional 164 environmental samples were taken from those same pasture-raised farms. Among those samples, 25 percent were positive for Salmonella. These researchers also determined that while the sampled farms had no history of antibiotic usage, all of the isolated Salmonella were resistant to the antibiotics sulfisoxazole and novobiocin, both used to treat humans. What does this all mean? At least for now, much of the research demonstrates that while pasture-raising may have some benefits, it does not eliminate the risk of contamination from Salmonella and Campylobacter. Regardless of how one raises their poultry, processing poultry on-farm appears to increase the risk of contamination.
Food Safety Knowledge and Practices of Farmers Market Vendors
Many questions still loom, and it is still unclear why some farmers market products, like poultry, have been shown to harbor higher levels of pathogens in comparison to their supermarket counterparts. In an attempt to answer some of these questions, the same Penn State researchers described previously conducted a needs assessment of farmers market poultry vendors to determine their knowledge about poultry processing, as well as their food safety knowledge, behaviors and attitudes. The results, published in the Journal of Extension, found that among 21 farmers market vendors surveyed in Pennsylvania, 43 percent did not use any sanitizers or antimicrobials during their poultry processing operations, only 33 percent utilized an organic acid rinse for poultry prior to packaging and 24 percent only used chemical sanitizers to clean their processing areas. Researchers also found that a small portion of vendors (33 percent) were processing outside, whereas a little over one-half of the vendors had their chickens slaughtered and processed by someone else, with little to no knowledge of the processing conditions. Knowledge questions on food safety and pathogens revealed that 63 percent of vendors could not correctly identify the common pathogens associated with chicken (Campylobacter, Salmonella), while one-half of the vendors could not identify which areas of a chicken (feathers, blood, feces, organs) can contaminate the chicken carcass during slaughter and processing. Alternatively, over 80 percent of the vendors correctly answered questions on proper poultry chilling and storage, and the majority of vendors were transporting and storing chicken at the farmers market in sufficient coolers with ice or some kind of refrigeration.
What about Beef and Pork?
The popularity of farmers markets has begun to highlight the drastic differences between the way U.S. federal agencies regulate direct-to-consumer beef and pork farmers versus those farmers raising poultry. Since all meat must be processed at a USDA-inspected facility, regardless of farm size or number of animals raised, meat sold at farmers markets has not been researched like poultry has. Even with proper USDA inspection, it is up to the individual farmer selling direct-to-consumer to ensure that his/her meat is packaged, stored, transported and sold under sanitary and safe conditions. Direct regulatory oversight will typically end once that meat product is processed and inspected, and most states in the U.S. do not actively inspect or regulate direct-to-consumer meat sales in any manner. Food safety should and must be a top priority for meat vendors. However, without proper training and education, many vendors may be unaware that their current practices might be putting their consumers at risk. Further research and active support from local, state and federal agencies are needed to assess the unique food safety issues associated with direct-to-consumer meat and poultry sales.
Food Safety Support and Research Are Overdue
Much research on farmers markets has focused primarily on the social, economic and nutritional benefits that foods from farmers markets can provide to local communities and consumers. USDA has dedicated millions of dollars in grant funding and aid to develop and sustain farmers markets and promotional programs, as well as commissioning numerous economic and marketing research studies. Most states have allotted a significant amount of funding for farmers market promotion and research programs, with a similar focus on marketing and economic strategies. Other federal and state programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Women, Infants and Children, Farmers Market Nutrition Program and various “farm-to-school lunch” programs, also have increased the presence and popularity of farmers markets. All of this support is very positive and there is no doubt that farmers markets continue to provide an important alternative source of food products for millions of Americans. However, there is one critical underlying issue that does not appear to be capturing the attention of local, state and federal supporters of farmers markets—food safety. This is not to say that food safety isn’t a priority of local, state and federal agencies, but it appears that the food safety risks at farmers markets have, for the most part, been ignored or assumed to be understood.
Unlike the relatively large collection of marketing and economic research that has been performed on farmers markets and direct-to-consumer marketing, only a handful of studies have begun to investigate the food safety risks of farmers market products and the unique retail environments in which they are sold. It is understood that farmers markets have become venues for farmers, who may have formerly focused primarily on farming but are now in the business of processing, packaging, storing, transporting and selling their own agricultural products at retail, rather than using brokers or selling directly to a food processor. Farmers markets also provide many nonfarming entrepreneurs with opportunities to sell their agricultural or processed foods directly to consumers. In contrast to typical conventional food processing, the conditions under which food products sold at farmers markets are grown, processed, stored, transported and sold are highly variable, generally unregulated and potentially unknown.
Where Do We Go from Here?
As the research suggests, there are clear gaps in farmers market vendor knowledge and their understanding of food safety, which may contribute to the contamination of meat, poultry and other foods grown and processed by these farmers. The keys to addressing these issues appear to be in the areas of food safety education of vendors and consumers, as well as microbiological research that will provide information on interventions, prevention and/or control of foodborne pathogens in these foods. Although increased regulation is likely, it will be through integrated and collaborative research projects and outreach programs that these unique food safety risks will be understood. Using this information, educators and researchers can develop and disseminate future food safety training and educational programs for farmers market vendors. While critical issues associated with foods sold at farmers markets remain, there also is a great opportunity for vendors, government, academia and consumers to act now, support and demand that we take the safety of meat, poultry and other foods sold at farmers markets seriously.
Joshua Scheinberg is a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State University, department of food science. He holds a B.Sc. in biology from Virginia Tech and a M.Sc. in food science from Penn State.
Catherine (Nettles) Cutter, Ph.D., received a Ph.D. in food technology from Clemson University in 1992. In 1999, she joined the department of food science at Penn State, where she is a professor and food safety extension specialist.
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