Identification of food safety risks at Virginia farmers' markets and development of a food safety plan to help farmers market managers
The growing popularity of farmers' markets coupled with a high percentage of produce-related foodborne outbreaks highlights the need for an emphasis on food safety within these markets to protect farmers, patrons and local economies. The number of farmers' markets registered in the United States has almost tripled in the last 15 years. Fresh produce constitutes the majority of food sold at farmers'markets. Between 1998 and 2008, raw produce accounted for almost half of the 4,589 foodborne illness outbreaks linked to a specific commodity. This research was conducted to identify practices at farmers' markets which may contribute to an increased risk of contamination, assess the microbial quality of produce sold at farmers' markets, as well as to develop a food safety management plan template for market managers to utilize to build their own food safety plan.
Using an observational data collection method, risky food safety practices were identified at Southwest Virginia farmers' markets. While market managers and vendors in three of the five markets observed had formal food safety training, numerous risky food safety behaviors were still observed including temperature abuse, cross contamination opportunities, and poor personal hygiene and sanitation. Additionally, the microbial quality of produce from Southwest Virginia farmers' markets was compared to produce sold at retail using culture based microbiological plating and molecular methods. Total aerobic bacteria and coliforms were enumerated, and the presence of Escherichia coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella spp., Staphylococcus aureus and generic E. coli were determined. A significantly greater quantity of total aerobic bacteria was isolated from farmers' market leafy greens, onions and tomatoes when compared to a retail grocery store (P=0.0011, P=0.0395, and P<0.0001, respectively). Additionally, one or more target pathogen was isolated from 28 farmers' market samples and 16 retail grocery store samples. The observed risky food safety behaviors along with the bacterial data collected emphasize the need for a pathogen reduction focus on fresh produce not only at farmers' markets, but also with growers and other retail outlets.
To help promote proper food safety practices at farmers' markets, a farmers' market food safety management plan (FSMP) template was developed to address the top five risk factors contributing to foodborne illness as identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The FSMP was evaluated for practicality and feasibility through interviews with market mangers in North Carolina and Virginia. Most market managers (66.7%) agreed that the FSMP was practical for their market while only 33.3% agreed that they could implement the plan immediately. Revisions suggested to the FSMP will be made and it will be made available in Virginia and North Carolina in spring 2016.