Local farmers’ markets are increasingly becoming community gathering spots, with live music, food trucks and much more. Small farmers have been joined by start-up entrepreneurs who are offering a cornucopia of products ranging from homemade pretzels to pickled green beans.
Food safety regulations for these types of enterprises are largely governed by state law. Many state legislatures have responded to the surge in home-based food businesses by enacting new Cottage Food Laws, which allow people to produce limited amounts of commercial products in their kitchens as long as they have undergone a training and certification process.
County and local health officials generally have responsibility for monitoring the compliance of farmers’ market vendors with all food safety regulations, including the provisions of Cottage Food laws. But these local health officials are often stretched thin. And, as the sun drives summertime temperatures to the top of the thermometer, food displayed in open-air tents can turn bad quickly.
Knowing who produced the food you buy is one step in assuring that you are providing the best for your family. It’s important to takes some extra steps as well. Here are some tips:
- Make sure the vendor is displaying food properly. Samples should be displayed in a manner that prevents cross-contamination. Vendors should use toothpicks or food-grade cups for samples to prevent shoppers from picking up samples with bare hands.
- Vendors handling any type of un-packaged prepared food should be wearing appropriate food-handling gloves, or taking other procedures to keep from touching the products with their hands.
- Vendors sampling potentially hazardous food like meat and seafood are required to keep those samples below 41⁰F or above 135⁰F. You likely won’t be carrying a food thermometer with you at the market, but use your senses to determine whether the samples are cold or hot enough.
- Even when buying fresh, organic produce at the market, look for a spot to wash it before eating. After all, numerous hands handle the food between the field and your shopping basket.
- Take care of your food after purchase. It’s tempting to put your shopping bag in the car, and then head back to the market to enjoy some music or supper, but food can spoil quickly in a hot car.
- Farm-fresh eggs at farmers’ markets are generally unwashed. This provides extra storage life, but you’ll want to wash them before using.
Nothing tastes better than biting into a fresh peach from a local grower at the farmers market. But a few common sense steps will make sure that the peach doesn’t bite back.