A Heads-Up for Chefs Shopping at Farmers Markets

Almost 60 percent of adults today say they look for locally-sourced foods at their neighborhood restaurants, causing more and more chefs to shop farmers markets to meet this demand. Clearly the farm-to-table movement is no longer just a trend among high-end foodies and health-conscious consumers, it’s a well-established part of America’s mainstream culinary landscape. But, with the dramatic increase of professional kitchens turning to local farmers markets comes the need for chefs and their teams to get savvy about food safety at farmers markets.

Farmer’s Market photo by Anne Preble on Unsplash

The key for chefs is to keep in mind the inherent food-handling and processing differences between shopping local farmers markets and ordering through a commercial food purveyor. Generally, large commercial food suppliers are subject to an array of government food safety regulations and inspections, while many local farmers markets are not usually subject to these same safety procedures.

Multiple studies of farmers markets showed leafy green produce and meats had evidence of E. coli bacteria: 40% of beef, 18% of pork,  28% of kale, 29% of lettuce and 17% of spinach. The same studies showed that Listeria was also found in 8% of beef and 7% of spinach samples.

These numbers are not meant to scare chefs away from shopping farmers markets or including locally-sourced food on their menus. As any chef knows, there are always some risks when it comes to any food sourcing and handling. What chefs can do is make food handling a part of the conversations they’re having with the farmers they meet at their local markets, and encourage best practices like wearing gloves the way you do in a professional kitchen. It’s worth noting that according to research, only 24% of farmers market vendors have disposable gloves at their stands, even when selling unpackaged, ready-to-eat foods.

To mitigate the risks and better serve your guests fresh farm-to-table ingredients, here’s a list of best practices for chefs, kitchen staff and consumers alike for safely shopping at farmers markets:

  • Bring a well-insulated bag or cooler to the market for the transportation of items that need to remain cool such as meat, seafood, dairy, and poultry.
  • Only purchase meat and poultry that is kept in closed coolers and has remained refrigerated from farm to market.
  • Do not purchase produce that is bruised or damaged.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by carrying items like poultry apart from fruit or vegetables.
  • If you buy pre-cut produce, ask how old was the produce before it was cut, when it was cut, and if items with inedible peels like melons were washed before cutting, and only buy pre-cut items that are refrigerated or kept on ice.
  • Don’t buy milk, juice or cider unless it can be confirmed that it has been pasteurized.
  • Make sure that eggs are and have been kept chilled, and wash eggs in their shells before using.
  • When you get back from the market, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap before washing produce.
  • Always wash fresh produce thoroughly once it arrives in your kitchen, even foods that have inedible peels like avocados and oranges. (A recent FDA study found salmonella and listeria on 17% of avocado peels.) An organic spray wash and triple rinsing are recommended.

Beyond these tips for safe food handling, chefs can also use their influence with farmers and  the public sector to spread the word on food safety. For example, when chefs are doing demos at events, they’re often encouraging people to buy local and shop at farmers markets, so it’s easy to go one little step further and talk about how to select and handle fresh food and reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.

Chefs, farmers and home cooks alike all love fresh, local produce, and even the experience of being at a farmers market, whether it’s to sell or to shop. Together we can all tackle the serious issue of food safety at farmers markets, so that beautiful, hand-picked farm-to-table ingredients not only bring better flavor to the plate, but better health to ourselves.

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