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Food safety training is needed for farmers market vendors

An innovative five-year study by Penn State researchers has revealed that many vendors at farmers markets are not taking adequate precautions to prevent the spread of food-borne illness. The findings suggest that the state of Pennsylvania would greatly benefit from a customized training program for farmers market vendors to reduce food-safety risks.

For the investigation, the researchers evaluated food safety behaviors at Pennsylvania farmers markets using three approaches, including direct concealed observations, state sanitarian observations, and self-reported vendor surveys.

The study revealed major discrepancies between vendor self-reported food handling practices and the observations made by the researchers and state sanitarians.

“We found that our direct field observations and inspector findings were very similar, yet very different from what most vendors said they were doing – their self-reported behaviors,” said Professor Cathy Cutter, who is the assistant director of food safety and quality programs for Penn State Extension.

“There was a chasm, if you will, between what we and the inspectors saw, and what vendors reported they were doing. The vendors think they are doing a good job, when in reality they are not. We are not sure why there were such discrepancies. Nevertheless, they need to do better.”

Vendors were found to demonstrate high-risk behaviors in the areas of hand washing, personal hygiene, and cross-contamination.

Despite the fact that a majority of the vendors sold raw foods such as meat and seafood alongside ready-to-eat foods, less than 24 percent of the vendors had disposable gloves present at vending stands. Furthermore, among the vendors who were using disposable gloves, slightly less than half used them improperly.

The most common example of improper glove use was handling money and unpackaged foods without changing gloves in between.

“These results suggest that there is a general lack of understanding among vendors about when to use disposable gloves, when to change gloves, and what kinds of behaviors are unacceptable while wearing gloves,” said lead researcher Joshua Scheinberg.

As farmers markets have increased in size, scope, and complexity over the years, so have the potential food-safety risks. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 66 percent of farmers markets are selling meat or poultry, 16 percent are selling fish or seafood, and 40 percent are selling prepared foods.

“These significant changes in the kinds of foods sold at farmers markets present new food-safety challenges and implications,” said Scheinberg. “As a result, several studies have revealed high-risk food-safety factors unique to farmers markets and farmers market vendors. We also saw problems.”

The research is published in the journal Food Protection Trends.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Joshua Scheinberg

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