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Is It Safe to Buy From A Farmers Market? Experts Say Yes / Explain Why

Shopping at a neighborhood farmer’s market boosts the local economy, helps protect the environment, and provides healthy, fresh foods to consumers, says Virginia Tech experts. Sarah Sharpe, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent, and Laura Strawn, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, talk about the benefits, how producers are ensuring their food is safe to consume, and share tips to make sure buyers get the freshest meat and produce.

Financial support to farmers: “When you purchase food from the grocery store, often the money you spend is split and divided many times, with the farmer receiving just a small percentage of that purchase price,” Sharpe said. “When you purchase directly from that farm at the farmers market, you are having a direct impact on that farm with 100% of the money that you spend able to go back into it.”

Help the environment: “Food grown locally has a much lower impact on the climate, with the decrease in the miles traveled from the field to your table,” Sharpe said.

Get fresher food: “The eggs may have been laid that week, the fruits and vegetables may have been picked that morning or the afternoon before, and the meat may have just been picked up from the processor,” Sharpe said.

What do food businesses do to produce food safely?

In most states, including Virginia, food available for sale is regulated. Strawn says how our food producers are regulated depends on, among other things, what they sell, where they produce it, how they sell it, and how much of it they sell.

“Food businesses are expected to keep extensive records that can be used to document they are compliant with the relevant regulations and following safe food handling best practices,” says Strawn. In most cases, they are also required to complete specific food safety training in order to receive their permit and/or have their application approved. “Some of our food businesses are exempt from inspection but are still expected to meet training and record-keeping requirements in addition to following all relevant best practices.”

Sharpe encourages customers to talk with local farm vendors about their farm practices. “Look for a food safety training certificate at their booth or ask them if they have one they can show you. If they answer their questions to your satisfaction, then please do buy from them. If they don’t, then make the best decision you can at the time. More so than anything, be an informed consumer.”

It’s also important to avoid touching all the food, she said. “We don’t wash our hands nearly enough and so when you take your hands and touch everything you may be a source of contaminating that product with something that can make someone else sick.”

Assuming the food has been prepared/processed following best practices, there are also some steps that you should take as a consumer to maintain the safety of that food from the market to your meal. “We encourage all consumers to follow these core-four practices: clean, separate, cook, and chill.” More information can be found here.

Some additional things to consider for the foods you can buy at the farmers market include:

Fresh fruits and vegetables 

  • Wash your produce with fresh water before you use it.
  • For cut produce (cut melon, tomatoes, etc.), have a cooler bag with to keep that produce cold until you can get it into your refrigerator.

Dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, seafood 

  • Expect to see these products frozen or refrigerated in a cooler. Have a cooler bag with you to keep those items cold.

Value-added foods (jams/jellies/pickles/etc.)  

  • Some vendors, depending on their products and how much they sell in a year, may be able to prepare some of their products at home without state inspection. These products must bear a label telling you that food is “Not For resale – Processed and prepared without state inspection.

– Margaret Ashburn

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