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Penn State’s flawed study of food safety at farmers markets: OpEd

A five-year study by Penn State researchers found problems with hand washing, personal hygiene and cross-contamination at Pennsylvania farmers markets.
A five-year study by Penn State researchers found problems with hand washing, personal hygiene and cross-contamination at Pennsylvania farmers markets. Centre Daily Times, file

Amid much fanfare, Penn State food safety researchers recently released the results of a five-year study on food safety practices at Pennsylvania farmers markets (CDT: “Penn State Study: Farmers markets food may not be safe.”). It is not likely that their intent was to discourage people from shopping at farmers markets by raising fears about the safety of the food purchased there, but that may be the effect. And if so, it is both unfortunate and unjustified.

Since everyone makes food choices at every meal, researchers concerned about food safety should look broadly at all available choices. Supermarkets, where most people obtain food they prepare at home, are the principal alternative to farmers markets. The study should have compared food safety practices at both places, but the study focused only on farmers markets.

They faulted farmer-vendors for handling money and not washing their hands, and for not wearing gloves and changing them every time they touch money. But when I went to the supermarket yesterday, the check-out clerk handling money was not wearing gloves, and did not go for a hand-washing after every customer. So my oranges, lettuce, and artichokes may have been handled by sick, sneezing customers with pathogen-laden fingers.

The same applies to all produce, packaged meats, indeed any item placed into a shopping cart. Contaminants from such items as well as from cashiers handling cash could be transferred at checkout to customers’ purchases.

The study also reported high rates of the presence of a variety of pathogens on farmers market purchases. But equivalent studies of residues on supermarket packages were not performed. And as any citizen who reads the news knows, supermarkets have sold spinach, ground meat, romaine lettuce and many other items that have sickened and, in some cases, killed customers. One could therefore assert that supermarket food is not safe.

The study failed to acknowledge that though it found many farmers market items with “hygiene indicators,” there have been few if any reports of Pennsylvania farmers market customers getting sick. The study reports 40 percent of meat from vendors had E. coli present. But the report doesn’t document that any purchasers got sick. If farmers market customers got sick from the high levels of contaminants reported, we would have heard about it.

It is worth noting that the headlines this study produced say food “may” be unsafe, not that it is unsafe. Furthermore, the study falsely claims the allegedly unsafe practices they witnessed were unique to farmers markets. That is simply not true, as readers can confirm next time they are in a supermarket checkout line.

One has to wonder what prompted a single-minded focus on food safety at farmers markets when, to ensure the public’s safety, it should have examined practices at other places where we buy our food. Among its many other flaws, the study also failed to discuss any differences in the freshness, nutritional content, and contamination by agricultural chemicals and antibiotics. Nor did it mention the impact on the economy for mega-supermarket chain dollars spent versus purchases made directly from local farmers.

As for me, I’ll see you at one of our fine local farmers markets.

James Eisenstein is Professor Emeritus at Penn State University.