Eat Well to Be Well: Pick up fresh produce, but not foodborne illness at farmers markets

One of the best things about summer is going to a farmers market. Depending on where you live, you may have access to a farmers market year round or they may just now be opening up for business. Either way, it’s always a treat to walk by the array of vendors, and decide what to buy from among various produce, baked goods and other edible foods.

What is not a treat is being exposed to a foodborne illness. Buying locally-grown and organic foods is encouraged, but don’t think they are impervious to a food safety hazard.

“Each year, nearly 1 in 6 Americans contract a foodborne illness, totaling to 48 million people. This is a public health issue and even today with all the health and food information available, more education is needed,” said Dr. David Samadi, chairman of urology and chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “This illness comes directly from what we’re eating. It’s up to each individual to monitor the freshness of the food, whether at a farmers market or grocery store.”

No matter where you buy your food, always be mindful of the potential for biological, physical or chemical contamination that could cause harm.

Biological contamination includes microorganisms that cause foodborne illness, such as Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus and E. Coli 0157:H7. Physical contamination can be in the form of foreign material such as rocks, glass, insects and dirt. Chemical contamination refers to agricultural chemicals used in the production of food, such as insecticides and fungicides. Out of these three possible methods of contamination, biological hazards cause the most harm and illness to people.

“Obviously, some of the issues around food safety are out of a consumer’s hands,” said Dr. Samadi, “There is still a lot to be done involving both the Centers for Disease Control and the farm and fishery industries, and many other touch points from the farm to the table. But consumers should be aware and cautious of food safety, especially around the foods they most commonly buy.”

Here are five tips to keep you and your family safe as you visit famers markets this season:

Get to know the grower. They will be your best source of information concerning what types of pesticides they use, if any, and how they harvest and keep their produce safe from bacteria. Ask them questions such as how to tell when the produce is ripe and how to store and prepare it.

Dr. Samadi added, “Wherever you’re buying food, ask questions, especially when it comes to produce and other fresh and perishable items, like meat and fish. These foods are most at risk for carrying bacteria, viruses or parasites that lead to foodborne infections.”

Always wash produce. First, wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before handling fresh produce. Then, wash fruits and vegetables under cool running water before eating or preparing them. It is not necessary to use soap, detergent or commercial produce washes. Even produce where you don’t eat the peel, such as melons, need to be washed – there can be dirt or bacteria on the surface that gets transferred to the inside when you cut through it. All cut or peeled produce needs to be covered and refrigerated.

“Obviously there’s a balance between wasting food and being cautious when it comes to foodborne illnesses,” Dr. Samadi said. “Buying organic and fresh foods like fruits and vegetables can be a good investment in your health, but you want to be sure you’re closely monitoring expiration dates, visual appearance and the state of the food.”

Take special precautions for milk, juice or ciders. A key question to ask: “Is it pasteurized?” Pasteurization is a process that kills harmful bacteria without reducing the nutritional content of the food. Unpasteurized milk, juice or ciders could be contaminated with Salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, Listeria and Campylobacter, placing anyone, particularly those with a weakened immune system, at risk. Pasteurized milk, juice or cider will still need to be refrigerated as they can contain low levels of nonpathogenic bacteria.

Keep eggs edible. Ask if the eggs are being kept at 45 degrees F while at the farmers market and always open the carton to check for dirty or cracked shells.

Maintain meat freshness. All meat being sold needs to be kept chilled below 40 degrees F in a closed container. Bring your own cooler or insulated bag to keep it cold when returning home. Keep meat separate from other food as juices from raw meat can contain harmful bacteria, contaminating food like produce. Once home, freeze or refrigerate meats immediately.

This summer growing season and year round, always be mindful of preventing a foodborne illness.

“Mindless consumption and purchasing of food items like produce, meats and fish can lead to contracting these types of illnesses,” said Dr. Samadi. “Protect yourself and know the symptoms related to foodborne diseases.”

By following the five tips listed, the risk of a foodborne illness can be significantly reduced, making going to a farmers market an enjoyable highlight of shopping for food. This summer, take advantage of the fresh, locally grown produce and other foods farmers markets provide.

One last bit of advice from Dr. Samadi, “Awareness, education and caution is key when it comes to these diseases, until we know further information.”

Sources: Kansas Department of Agriculture; Lutz, C., Mazur, E., Litch, N. 2015. Nutrition and Diet Therapy. Philadelphia:F. A. Davis Company; Grosvenor, M.B., Smolin, L.A. 2012. Visualizing Nutrition Everyday Choices. Hoboken:Wiley.

Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, Burlingame, where she teaches Basic Nutrition, and at Butler County Community College, Council Grove, where she teaches Therapeutic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and is also a blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi at Contact her at [email protected].

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