New training program seeks to improve food safety at farmers markets

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Addressing a problem revealed a few years ago by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State Extension will test a food safety training program for farmers market vendors in select cities across Pennsylvania this summer.

The pilot program, which will include a three-hour, face-to-face session, is directed at small-scale food processors and farmers who are producing foods for sale at farmers markets and farm stands. The training encompasses key food safety concepts, such as safe processing and preparation methods, guidance for managing food safety risks in the retail setting and other important food safety-related information.

Catherine Cutter, professor of food science and food safety extension specialist; Joshua Scheinberg, doctoral student in food science; and Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate; designed the training. The program grew out of research published in 2013 by Scheinberg and Cutter that revealed higher percentages of the pathogens salmonella and campylobacter in whole chickens sampled from farmers markets in Pennsylvania, when compared to those purchased at supermarkets.

It's not a minor problem, the scientists said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers markets in the United States has more than quadrupled -- to more than 8,000 -- in the last 20 years.

In Pennsylvania, there are more than 300 farmers markets currently operating. Not only are there more farmers markets, but foods now sold at these markets go far beyond fresh produce.

"When we started looking at farmers markets, we began to notice that they weren't just selling local produce but had become venues for new entrepreneurs and small food processors to sell more complex and high-risk foods, such as poultry and meats, cheeses, sauces and other prepared foods," Scheinberg said.

market guy selling food

In Pennsylvania, there are more than 300 farmers markets currently operating. Not only are there more farmers markets, but foods now sold at these markets go far beyond fresh produce.

Image: Baker County Tourism

"In 2010, when we started our research, the regulatory oversight of foods sold at farmers markets in Pennsylvania was just beginning, and we were concerned about how those high-risk foods were being produced and sold to the public."

Having helped small and large meat processors solve their food safety issues for more than 15 years, Cutter understood too well the food safety challenges facing farmers and small food processors selling foods at farmers markets. "We saw a great opportunity to help and train farmers market vendors on the importance of controlling food safety risks, but we really didn't know where to start," she said.

"Our goal from the beginning was to develop food safety training for farmers market vendors, but we needed some real data to identify where vendors might need help, and what unique food safety risks were associated with farmers markets. The poultry study gave us that first indication that there were some real food safety challenges facing those vendors."

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Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety Extension associate, teaching food safety concepts to farmers market vendors inside a pole barn at The Seed Farm in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

Image: Penn State

In 2013, supported by a College of Agricultural Sciences grant, Cutter and Scheinberg continued exploring food safety challenges at farmers markets by focusing on the retail practices occurring at the markets, such as the handling, preparation, packaging and storage of foods.

Through a multifaceted approach involving vendor and market manager surveys, focus groups, concealed observations and surveys of Pennsylvania public health inspectors, Cutter and Scheinberg identified key areas of focus for future training programs specific to Pennsylvania farmers market vendors. The results of their assessment will be presented at the 2015 International Association of Food Protection annual meeting in Portland, Oregon.

With the assistance of Bucknavage, Cutter and Scheinberg used their research results to develop the pilot training program for farmers market vendors. 

"After four years of research, I'm really excited to put our results to use, and we are hoping that this training program is another step forward to ensure the success and viability of farmers markets in Pennsylvania," said Scheinberg. 

For more information, or to register for a Penn State Farmers Market Food Safety Training Program in your area, visit the Penn State Extension Farmers Market Food Safety Workshop registration page.

Last Updated June 17, 2015