What You Need to Know About Farmers Markets and Food Safety

Summer time calls for barbecue, time at the pool and beach vacations. For any of these occasions, you may want to enjoy a nice slice of watermelon, a big bowl of strawberries, or a tall glass of lemonade. Where can you get the foods you need to have these summer delicacies? Why your local farmers market, of course!

Farmers markets are quite popular across America with more than 8,500 farmers markets listed in USDA's National Farmers Market Directory. While local supermarkets and shopping centers offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables (fresh, canned and frozen), in the summer, many folks like to visit a neighborhood farmers market to support local farmers and shop for seasonal goodies.

If food safety concerns are keeping you from enjoying the bounty of a farmers market, look no further. We’ve got the answers to some questions you may have about shopping at a farmers market.  

Do I need to take the same, less, or more precaution when buying produce from a farmers market versus a supermarket?

The same precautions should be taken when buying produce from a farmers market as when you make similar purchases at the supermarket. Whether a farmers bounty is sold at the grocery store or the supermarket, farmers must follow United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety regulations to grow and harvest crops.

Safe food handling is an important practice for consumers no matter where they buy their fruits and veggies. Dr. Judy Harrison, professor at the University of Georgia, states,  "It is important to remember that whether food is grown in your own back yard or whether it is grown thousands of miles away, it must be handled in a way that keeps it safe all the way from the farm to your table.” 

Will fewer pesticides be used on fruits and vegetables bought at farmers markets versus ones bought at supermarkets?

Farmers markets and supermarkets offer an assortment of conventionally and organically grown produce. Both organic and conventionally grown produce are safe and are nutritionally equivalent and both use pesticides for pest management. Additionally, there is also no safety or nutritional advantage in buying produce from the farmers market versus the supermarket.  

Dr. Harrison explains, "Many farmers who sell at farmers markets say they use organic methods. Some farmers who sell at farmers markets say they use conventional methods.  You can find foods in the supermarkets grown by both methods as well.  It is important for consumers to remember that just because produce is organic, that does not mean that no chemicals have been used in production.  There is a list of allowable chemicals that can be used in organic production…Buying organic is an option and a personal decision.  Is it the only way to have safe food?  No."

I'm often tempted to purchase a juicy peach and eat it while I walk around. Is this OK? Should I rinse fruits and vegetables from farmers market?

Consumers should plan to be vigilant in their food safety practices no matter where they are purchasing food. Common practices of washing produce, washing hands, and using clean utensils for preparing and eating should always be employed.

Dr. Aurora Saulo, professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, explains, "Eating fresh fruits and vegetables without first carefully washing them introduces risk to the person eating them. Eating anything raw is risky--nothing may happen or something may happen. Washing is a step that may decrease the disease causing microorganisms on the surface of fresh produce and therefore, offer food safety. If fresh produce bought at a farmers market is so tempting that one cannot resist the temptation of eating it without washing first (as one would wash it at home), just be aware that there is a risk involved."

Consumers should also not “judge a fruit by its cover.” Just because a peach is big and beautiful does not mean that you can safely begin eating it without washing it (or any other fruit for that matter).  

Dr. Maris Bunning, associate professor at Colorado State University, adds, "It is always recommended to wash fresh produce before consuming - even though produce is often washed before being displayed, it has been in an open environment and may have been handled by several people before being purchased."

We hope you visit your local farmers markets and feel confident in your safety prowess as you purchase all the wonderful fruits and veggies of summer. But remember, our food safety tips should be used year-round!

Tamika Sims, PhD, contributed to this blog. Special thanks to Dr. Maris Bunning, Dr. Aurora Saulo and Dr. Judy Harrison for their expert insights.