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.