Tony Glover points with pride to the growing number of farmers markets popping up on Alabama town squares and byways like mushrooms after a drenching spring rain.
Glover, coordinator of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Cullman County office, has done his part to promote the growth of his own farmers market, Festhalle Market Platz, a bustling market housed in a massive 7,250 square foot wooden pavilion in downtown Cullman and operated from April through October.
Yet, despite all this growth and the optimism it has generated, Glover occasionally worries about the specter of foodborne illness.
As he’s the first to stress, just because food is fresh and locally grown doesn’t mean it’s necessarily free of pathogens. And only one serious pathogenic outbreak traced to a single farmers market could quickly undo years of planning and investment— not to mention, all the effort put into building a loyal customer base, he says.
Similar concerns seem to be in the back of many consumers’ minds too — a fact driven home to Glover not only throughout his career as an Extension educator but also during the years when he operated his own produce business.
“Customers were always asking me where food comes from and also about how it’s raised and whether it contains pesticides,” Glover recalls.
Glover is still fielding the same frequent, often fervent questions from consumers in his current role as a Cooperative Extension professional.
Operating on the time-honored maxim that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he has turned to members of the Alabama Extension food safety team, who are conducting a series titled “Enhancing the Safety of Locally Grown Produce” throughout the state to alert growers to these risks.
Angela Treadaway, an Extension regional food safety agent in central Alabama, already has conducted four safe handling training sessions for growers in Cullman as well as neighboring Walker County.
“Growers who sell their produce to big retail chains such as Wal-Mart and Wynn-Dixie are required to undergo more comprehensive training known as GAP, which stands for Good Agricultural Practices,” Treadaway says.
Farmers not only learn how to identity common practices that contribute to foodborne illness but also shown how to comply with the paperwork requirements that would enable investigators, if the need arose, to trace back not only the point of origin of this produce but also to gain a clear picture of how it was produced, packed, handled, and stored.
The training Treadaway and the other Food Safety Extension educators are providing through “Enhancing the Safety of Local Produce” is not as comprehensive as GAP. But then, farmers markets in Alabama are currently not governed either by state or federal food handling regulations, she notes.
“We think these regulations are coming sooner or later, much as they have with restaurants,” Treadaway says. “Right now, though, we are concentrating our efforts on alerting growers to the risk of foodborne illness and the steps they can take to prevent outbreaks.”
“Enhancing the Safety of Locally Grown Produce” training identifies common practices that may contribute to serious breaches in food safety.
Top of the list
At the top of the list: water, namely irrigation water, Treadaway says.
“They need to be especially aware of the type of water source they’re using to irrigate their produce,” Treadaway says. “For example, if you’re drawing your water from a pond to which cows and other livestock have access, you’re running the serious risk of exposing your produce to pathogens.”
The use of manure as fertilizer is another critical concern — the reason why farmers are urged to compose 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.
But as Treadaway and other food safety experts stress during the training, there are even more subtle ways that pathogenic exposure can occur.
“If you happen to be a hunter, for example, you don’t need to haul your hunting dogs or, for that matter, a dead deer or a feral hog on your truck bed the night before you carry produce to market, at least without cleaning the bed thoroughly,” says Dr. Jean Weese, an Alabama Extension food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of food science who heads the Food Safety team.
Weese says the trainers also stress the importance of using clean cutting boards and utensils at farmers markets.
“In too many cases, growers, in showcasing their products to customers, use their pocket knives to slice produce, often on unsanitized surfaces,” Weese says, “We encourage them to use disposable utensils and plates instead.”
The training also emphasizes the importance of separating display produce from the products that are actually sold.
“Customers have a tendency to touch everything, and growers can’t be sure where all these hands have been — the reason why it should be a standard practice to separate display produce from the products that are actually bagged and sent home with the buyer,” Weese says.
Cullman County farmers are not required to take the safe-handing training to sell produce in the Cullman Farmers Market, Glover says.
For now, he’s adopted a “coalition of the willing” strategy for reaching his farmers market sellers, hoping that as more growers are encouraged to take the training, others will follow suit. Lately, he’s seen evidence that this strategy is working: A few of the growers who have taken the training have begun displaying their certificates on their market stalls.
Glover hopes this certification, in addition to translating into an uptick in sales will, in turn, provide an incentive for more noncertified growers to take the training.
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