Eat Well to Be Well: Five ways to minimize food risk at farmers markets

In the coming weeks, farmers markets will once again reopen for local farmers and gardeners to display the fruits of their labor. It’s always a treat to walk by the array of vendors, deciding among the various produce, baked goods and other edible foods to choose from. What is not a treat is being exposed to a foodborne illness.

Buying locally grown and organic foods has become one of the hottest food trends in recent years. But don’t think that they are impervious to any type of food safety hazards. No matter where you buy your food, always be mindful of the potential for biological, physical or chemical contamination that can cause you 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 glass, rocks, insects and dirt that can cause injury.

Chemical contamination has to do with agricultural chemicals used in the production of the food, such as insecticides and fungicides. Out of these three possible methods of contamination, biological hazards cause the most harm and illness to people. Here are five ways to still enjoy visiting farmers markets and yet keep your family and yourself safe.

  1. 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 how to tell when the produce is ripe and how to store and prepare it.
  2. Always wash produce. First, wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before handling fresh produce. Then, wash fruits and vegetables under 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 as there can be dirt or bacteria on the surface that gets transferred to the inside when you cut through it. All cut or peeled fruits and vegetables need to be refrigerated.
  3. Special precautions for milk, juice or ciders: There is a key question you need to ask the vendor who is selling milk, juice or cider – “Is it pasteurized?” Pasteurization is a process of heating food to a specific temperature for a certain length of time in order to kill harmful bacteria. It was developed by Louis Pasteur in 1864 and it does not reduce the nutritional value of the food product. Consuming unpasteurized milk, juice or cider, is taking a risk of being exposed to a serious, potentially life-threatening foodborne illness. For example, raw milk, which is unpasteurized milk, can be contaminated with microorganisms such as Salmonella, E Coli, Listeria and Campylobacter. Infants, young children, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system are particularly at risk. But even healthy people of any age can become ill from drinking unpasteurized products. Pasteurized milk, juice or cider should still be refrigerated as they can contain low levels of nonpathogenic bacteria that can cause food spoilage.
  4. Keep eggs edible. Many vendors will sell farm-raised eggs which are much fresher than store bought eggs. However, do observe and ask if the eggs are being kept stored at 45 degrees F while at the farmers market and always open the carton to check for any dirty or cracked shells.
  5. Maintain meat freshness. Any meat being sold at farmers markets needs to be kept chilled in a closed cooler filled with ice to keep the temperature sufficiently cold. If you plan on buying meat at a farmers market, bring your own cooler or insulated bag to keep it cold. Juices from raw meat can contain harmful bacteria, having the potential to contaminate other food. Keep raw meat in its own bag or cooler, separate from other food, and this will eliminate the likelihood of contamination.

By following the above steps, you can make your trip to a farmers market a highlight of your food shopping experience and lessen your chance of contamination. Take advantage of the fresh, locally grown produce farmers markets provide this season.

Here are some recipes using food you would find at a farmers market to help get you started.

Roasted Corn with Basil-Shallot Vinaigrette
From EatingWell.com. Serves 4.

  • 3 cups fresh corn kernels 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh basil 1 tbsp. minced shallot
  • 1 tbsp. red-wine vinegar ¼ tsp. salt
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Toss corn and oil to coat and spread out on a large baking sheet.
  2. Bake, stirring once, until some kernels begin to brown, about 20 minutes.
  3. Combine basil, shallot, vinegar, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Add the corn, toss to coat.

Serve warm or cold.

Pea and New Potato Salad
From EatingWell.com. Serves 8.

  • 2 pounds new or baby potatoes, scrubbed and trimmed, halved if larger than walnuts.
  • 2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil 1 bunch scallions, white parts only, finely chopped
  • 2 cups shelled fresh peas (about 3 pounds) or frozen peas (thawed)
  • ¼ cup water 1 ½ cups thinly sliced small radishes
  • 1 tbsp. butter 2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, chervil or savory
  • ½ tsp. salt ¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper
  1. Place a steamer basket in a large saucepan, add 1 inch of water and bring to a boil. Out potatoes in the basket and steam until barely tender when pierced with a skewer, 15 to 20 minutes, depending on size.
  2. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add scallion whites and cook, stirring constantly, until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add peas and water; cook, stirring occasionally, until the peas are just softened, about 3 minutes. Add radishes and butter, cook, stirring until the radishes are softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Gently stir in the steamed potatoes, herbs, salt and pepper.

Serve warm.

Bean and Tomato Salad with Honey Vinaigrette
From EatingWell.com. Serves 8.

  • 1 ¼ cups dried beans or 2 15-ounce cans white beans, rinsed
  • 1 tsp. salt, divided ½ cup minced red onion ¼ cup cider vinegar
  • 4 tsp. honey 1 tsp. peanut or canola oil ½ tsp. freshly ground pepper
  • 8 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • ½ cup fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced 1 pound tomatoes, sliced
  1. If using canned beans, skip to step 3. If using dried beans, rinse then place in a large bowl. Cover with 3 inches of cold water and soak at room temperatures for at least 6 hours or overnight.
  2. Drain the soaked beans, rinse and transfer to a large saucepan. Add 6 cups cold water. Bring to a simmer, partially cover and simmer gently, stirring once or twice, until tender but not mushy, 20 minutes to 1 hour. If at any time the liquid level drops below the beans, add 1 cup water. When the beans are about ¾ done, season with ½ tsp. salt. When the beans are tender, remove from the heat and drain.
  3. Combine the beans (cooked or canned), the remaining ½ tsp. salt, onion, vinegar, honey, oil and pepper in a large bowl. Stir, cover and refrigerate to marinate for at least 1 hour or overnight.
  4. Cook green beans in a large pot of boiling water until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain, Rinse with cold water and drain again. Pat dry and add to the marinated beans. Stir in cherry (or grape) tomatoes and basil. Season with pepper.

To serve, arrange tomato slices around the edge of a serving platter or shallow salad bowl and spoon the bean salad into the center.

Sources: K-State Research and Extension and nutrition.gov.


Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who works as an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, where she teaches a course called Basic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at [email protected].


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