Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Safe Way: Farmers' Markets

TomatoesFarmers' market season has arrived--and food safety is always an issue for both the consumer and the producer. Salmonella has been an issue in the tomato industry in years past, and so some seem to worry about how farmers' markets stand up to grocery store produce. This article from takes professional views on the salmonella situation.

Are Tomatoes Safer at the Farmers' Market?

With a tomato-related salmonella outbreak in 16 states, farmers markets got this interesting question:

"Are tomatoes from the farmer's market safe to eat, given the FDA's recent warning about tomatoes & salmonella?"

The FDA has linked the nasty illness to raw red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes. The feds say it's OK to eat those varieties if they're sourced from regions that are not associated with the outbreak, clearing tomatoes from places like California and Canada. Washington did not make the all-clear-as-far-as-we-know list.

The markets are checking in with its greenhouse growers on the topic and came back with this:

"Yes, our local farm tomatoes are definitely safe. The outbreak is likely due to the wide use of some kind of composting medium on big factory farms that was contaminated - but none of our market farmers are connected in any way to those kinds of operations. In fact, the tomatoes at the markets right now are all hothouse tomatoes, which makes them even safer, as they are grown in wood bark. Also, our farmers are mostly growing heirloom varieties, both in their hothouses and in their fields.

The FDA web site also notes that homegrown tomatoes are safe. Our market farmers are essentially growing homegrown tomatoes: they are not huge operations but rather smaller family farms, using safe, healthy and sustainable growing methods. These farmers live on their farms, pick the harvest themselves and eat the food they grow as well as selling it to local markets."

I checked in with Doug Powell, associate professor and scientific director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University on food safety.

His take on the farmer's market go-ahead? Not so fast. He wrote:

"Whether your produce comes from around the corner or around the globe, contamination must be prevented beginning on the farm. Ask your tomato supplier:-- What do you do for food safety?-- Do you or your suppliers test wash water for bacteria? Irrigation water?-- What soil amendments are being used?-- Do you or your suppliers train your staff on handwashing?"

But wait! Aren't the farmer's markets at least safe from the current salmonella outbreak, I asked, if the farmers are truly growing different varieties than the ones identified with the problem?

Powell said yes, although there's no basis (yet, I say) for the speculation that big factory farms caused the problem. In general, though, when it comes to food safety, "there is no evidence that sustainable and local is safer."

But wouldn't outbreaks from small local farms at least be easier to contain and easier to track?
Maybe, Powell wrote, but it's a tough comparison to make. "We have no sense how often they happen because they are small and don't get picked up."

So, talk to the people who grow your produce. Ask them questions. The advantage of the farmer's markets is, at least at the markets you actually get that chance.

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