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Farm-fresh food preference not without risks

| Saturday, July 9, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
Fresh brown eggs are one of the offerings at the Tarentum Farmers Market on Corbet Street on Wednesday, July 6, 2016.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
Shoppers visit the vendors at the Tarentum Farmers Market on Corbet Street on Wednesday, July 6, 2016.

Susan Kreinbrook feeds only local, farm-fresh eggs to her family and she buys local poultry as often as she can.

“I talk to my local farmer and I know what I am buying,” said Kreinbrook, a Harrison resident. “You're right there and you are buying eggs that came from across the street rather than across the country.”

However, the wholesome image of small, local farms does not ensure a less-contaminated product, researchers say.

Penn State University studies have found a higher prevalence of two food poisoning bacteria — campylobacter and salmonella — in raw chicken sold at farmers markets rather than traditional supermarkets.

Penn State researchers also are looking at local farm eggs, the safety of prepared food at farmers markets and consumer behavior.

“We've looked at farmers markets and, for the most part, those guys are pretty good at handling products well,” said Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension agent for the Penn State Department of Food Science.

“And then there are guys who don't — they are loose in their procedures,” he said.

The potential for more bacteria in some local farm products doesn't bother or surprise Kreinbrook, 35.

“Raw eggs and raw chicken, no matter where you buy them, you have to handle them with care,” she said.

She prefers the quality and freshness of local farm products.

An ongoing Penn State study has found that farm market consumers aren't “as tight as they should be in how they handle, transport and cook their food,” Bucknavage said.

One problem, he said, is consumers expect farm market food to be inherently cleaner, and it's not.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture increased its inspections with the rising number of farm markets.

New state regulations require market vendors of prepared food to have licenses, said Lydia Johnson, director of food safety for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

At a farmers market in Allegheny County, vendors are required to prepare food in a county-licensed facility, said Donna Scharding, the county's food safety program manager. The permit requires safe food temperatures and handling procedures and cross-contamination prevention.

A farmer's thoughts

The regulations cut both ways for local farmers.

“The increased regulations are more of an invasion of bureaucracy into the works of small farm operations,” said Joseph Bozzelli, whose Five Elements Farms in North Buffalo sells vegetables at farm markets in Butler and Freeport.

But, Bozzelli said, some farm market regulation is necessary. He said he once witnessed a vendor who was not a farmer sell vegetables he had washed and allowed to dry on parking lot asphalt.

“Something like that would have no direct impact on me, but would have impact on the market if somebody got sick,” he said.

“With the growth of farm markets, there's more a potential for people who are trying to make a quick buck and who don't know how to handle and store produce and food properly,” Bozzelli said.

Risks of foodborne illness

The Penn State studies have investigated raw chicken sold at farmers markets.

“If you see chicken and it's warm, it's probably not a good idea to buy it,” Bucknavage said.

“When you get it, don't have the misconception that the product will be safer,” Bucknavage said. “It requires the same handling and cooking that you would do for any poultry.”

A farmer with fewer than 3,000 chickens is not subject to oversight from U.S. Department of Agriculture unless they slaughter.

“When you have a small amount of birds, you're not going to have the same level of attention — and I'm not saying you need it,” Bucknavage said.

“That's one of the reasons why farm market birds are a little more contaminated, because they don't have the controls,” he said.

Eggs have internal and external contamination just like chicken. Eggs need to be refrigerated, and consumers should assume the egg shell is contaminated and they should wash their hands after handling, he said.

“I think it's great these guys are selling fresh eggs,” Bucknavage said. “(But) often the eggs are not washed, and there's a potential for contamination on the surface.”

Thorough cooking kills any food-borne bacteria.

The small farmer might allow the chickens to roam freely where they can have contact with animal feces and other contaminants, he said.

“It's not that it is bad; you have to recognize you have to handle the bird safely.”

What license?

The state overhauled its license system for food vendors in 2011 because the number of places to buy prepared food exploded to include food carts and trucks, bookstores and farmers markets.

No license is required to sell raw vegetables.

“But if you start making jelly sandwiches, you need to get registered and inspected,” said Johnson, of the state Agriculture Department.

Although small chicken farmers don't need a license, they still must meet state regulations: Store eggs below 45 degrees in unused packing; sell within five days after eggs are laid; include dating on packaging and other information, according to Phillip Clauer, poultry extension agent at Penn State.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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