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Researchers Aim to Reduce Food Safety Risk at Farmer’s Markets

Food-safety researchers at North Carolina State University are unveiling a website that offers guidance to farmer’s markets on how to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. The program is the first to rely on observational study of farmer’s markets to establish best management practices for food safety.

“This is an important issue for public health, and for farmer’s markets themselves,” says Dr. Ben Chapman, an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at NC State and co-author of the curriculum. For example, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in 2011 was linked to strawberries sold in farmer’s markets in Oregon. The outbreak led to 16 illnesses and a health advisory that severely curtailed sales at regional farmer’s markets.

The food safety program is the first to be based on observational research into current practices at farmer’s markets.

“An outbreak of foodborne illness can have significant financial consequences in addition to the human cost,” Chapman says. “NC State created this curriculum in partnership with farmer’s market managers and vendors to safeguard public health and protect this growing sector of the agricultural economy.”

The training, which can be found at ncgoodfarmersmarketpractices.com, addresses food safety issues for products ranging from fruits and vegetables to dairy products. For example, it discusses how to safely offer food samples to customers (hint: use ice) and the importance of hand-washing facilities for vendors.

The guidance is the first of its kind that is based on observational research into current practices at farmer’s markets. The research was conducted at farmer’s markets throughout North Carolina. “By seeing what people are already doing, we were able to focus on issues that need to be addressed,” says Allison Smathers, a graduate student at NC State who led the development of the curriculum. “It also gives us a baseline that we can use to evaluate progress in implementing these safety practices.”

The North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission supported the development and implementation of the program, which is officially titled the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Good Farmer’s Market Practices Program. County extension agents are in the process of holding workshops across North Carolina to familiarize farmer’s market managers and vendors with the guide. To date, agents have conducted more than 20 workshops, reaching more than 250 market managers and vendors.

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