Penn State

Why the food you buy at farmers markets may not be safe, Penn State researchers say

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

A five-year study by Penn State researchers found that many vendors at Pennsylvania farmers markets have problems with hand washing, cross-contamination and personal hygiene.

The research indicates that vendors aren’t doing enough to prevent foodborne illnesses from spreading.

Cathy Cutter, professor of food science, and her research team used a combination of state sanitarians’ observations, direct concealed observations and surveys from farmers market vendors. Researchers conducted their undercover observations at 42 vendors in eight farmers markets in the western, central and eastern parts of Pennsylvania.

Twenty-five vendors were observed three times; 11 vendors were observed twice; and six vendors were observed once, for a total of 102 observations, according to the research.

“There was a chasm, if you will, between what we and the inspectors saw, and what vendors reported they were doing,” said Cutter, who is also assistant director of food safety and quality programs for Penn State Extension. “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.”

During observations, according to the study, 86.3 percent of vendors were found to be wearing clean clothing, but only 23.5 percent used hair coverings while handling food. About 67 percent of state sanitarians noted that personal cleanliness wasn’t usually a compliance issue during inspections.

Use of disposable gloves was minimal, with only 23.5 percent of the observations indicating that gloves were present at the vending stand. According to the study, 34.2 percent of surveyed vendors self-reported using disposable gloves at farmers markets.

Among the observations of vendors actually using disposable gloves, 43.4 percent revealed improper use, such as handling money with gloves and then handling unpackaged foods with the same gloves.

Additionally, hand washing was considered to be required during 57.8 percent of observations, but only 8.5 percent of those involved vendors washing their hands correctly, the study said.

The findings conclude that Pennsylvania farmers markets would “greatly benefit from a customized food safety training program to address the identified issues and regulatory requirements need to sell foods safely in Pennsylvania.”

The findings were published Thursday in the journal Food Protection Trends.

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