Extension System offers safe food handling training to farmers markets

AUBURN UNIVERSITY – The Alabama Cooperative Extension System Food Safety Team is offering safe food handling training to fruit and vegetable producers who sell their commodities at farmers markets throughout the state, with the ultimate goal of preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness.

The training, titled “Enhancing the Safety of Locally Grown Produce,” is designed to alert sellers at farmers markets to the handling practices most commonly linked with foodborne illness outbreaks.

“Even one serious pathogenic outbreak traced to a single farmers market could derail all the years of effort, planning and investment that went into it – and, for that matter, all the effort put into building a loyal customer base,” said Jean Weese, an Extension food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of food science who heads the Food Safety Team.

Weese says her team ultimately hopes to reach sellers at farmers markets in all 67 Alabama counties with the training. The team already has completed 34 sessions in 32 counties, reaching 345 participants.

The training is not as comprehensive as Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, which is now required by big retail chains, such as Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie. GAP training acquaints farmers with the common practices that contribute to foodborne illness. It also teaches them how to comply with the paperwork requirements that enable investigators, in the event of an outbreak, to trace back a food product’s point of origin and, if necessary, to determine how it was produced, handled and stored.

While Weese says she is reasonably certain that regulations similar to GAP ultimately will apply to farmers markets, the team’s training efforts for now will focus only on acquainting growers with food-handling practices that commonly contribute to pathogenic outbreaks and the steps that should be taken to avoid them.

Water, especially water used to irrigate produce, is a special concern, according to Angela Treadaway, a Food Safety Team member and regional Extension agent who already has conducted the training in several counties. For example, drawing water from a pond to which cows and other livestock have access increases the risk that the produce will be exposed to pathogens.

The use of manure as fertilizer is another critical concern. Farmers are advised to compost manure several weeks before it’s applied as crop fertilizer and not to harvest produce for at least 90 days after manure has been applied.

The training also explores many of the more subtle ways that pathogenic exposure often occurs.

For example, trainers urge growers to clean truck beds thoroughly before they are used to carry produce to market –  a special concern for hunters who may have hauled hunting dogs or even dead animals the previous night, says Weese.

Growers are also advised not to display fruits and vegetables on unsanitary surfaces or to slice them with pocket knives. The training emphasizes the importance of using cutting boards and utensils instead.

Likewise, growers are urged not to sell display produce.

“Consumers have a tendency to touch everything, and growers have no way of knowing where their hands have previously been,” Weese said.

Currently, the majority of farmers markets do not require their sellers to complete safe-handling training.

For now, Food Safety Team members have adopted a kind of “coalition of the willing” strategy, hoping that as more growers are encouraged to take the training, others will follow suit.

This strategy seems to be working, Weese says, who adds that growers who have successfully completed the training have begun posting their certificates for customers to see.

Safety team members say they hope this will serve as an incentive for other growers to take the training.

More information about the training is available by contacting a county Extension office or by contacting a member of the Food Safety Team through this website, http://www.aces.edu/directory/selectLocation.php?program=8.

(Written by Jim Langcuster.)

Contact: Jim Langcuster, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, (334) 844-5686 (langcjc@auburn.edu), or Charles Martin, Auburn University Office of Communications and Marketing (334) 844-9999 (marticd@auburn.edu)