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Farmers market patrons seek freshness, food safety

| Monday, Aug. 15, 2011

Consumers hoping farmers markets offer a safe haven against food-borne illnesses are flocking in record numbers to outdoor stands in Western Pennsylvania and across the country.

"It's about quality," Luke Shaffer, 34, of the North Side said as he left a market there. "I've never had any quality issues at a farmers market."

But experts say the products sold there can still pose risks.

"People should not be lulled into the belief that because it is local, organic and small that it is necessarily safer than industrial agriculture and food production," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney and food safety advocate. "Most food-borne illnesses are never linked to an outbreak. Even small farmers who bring products to farmers markets need to pay attention to the safety of the food they sell."

Health officials in Pennsylvania -- which the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranks sixth in the nation with 266 farmers markets -- say they're not aware of any food-borne illness outbreaks that can be linked to the markets.

Officials in July halted poultry sales at two markets in Washington after discovering pathogens on raw chicken that could sicken people if the meat wasn't properly cooked.

The USDA concedes that problems exist throughout the food supply chain.

"We have food safety challenges in this country that need to be dealt with at the institutional level and at the household level," said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who announced this month that the number of farmers markets is up 17 percent, from 6,132 in 2010 to 7,175 this year.

Shaffer and his wife, Alexis, 34, have been involved in three food recalls this summer but reported no ill effects.

They are customers of Brunton Dairy in Independence, which ceased production last month after 14 people who drank the dairy's milk developed diarrhea and other symptoms caused by the bacteria Yersinia enterocolitica . The state Department of Agriculture is expected to announce the results of testing at Brunton Dairy on Wednesday.

The Shaffers ate ground turkey that was part of the Aug. 3 recall of 36 million pounds of meat believed to be contaminated with salmonella. And they received a call from a grocer in June telling them the cucumbers they had just eaten were recalled.

Farmers say they often notice a jump in sales after publicized food illness outbreaks.

"Everybody asks, 'Is it local?' " said Joel Kurtz, 26, of Spring Harvest Farm in Mercer, who was selling vegetables at the North Side market. "It's knowing who is growing your stuff."

Keeping food safe is an enormous challenge, the USDA says.

"This year, one in six Americans will get sick from food-borne illness," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the International Association for Food Protection this month. "An estimated 128,000 Americans will end up in the hospital, and this year 3,000 will die from food-borne illness."

Charlene Shook visits the South Side farmers market weekly.

"It's the freshness," Shook said as she bought corn from Amish farmer Mose Miller, 34, of New Wilmington. "I've never had a problem."

Held in a parking lot next to an auto body shop, the market offers vegetables, meats, cheese and even dog treats. The sound of workers banging on brake drums adds to the cacophony as the smell of pierogies cooking permeates the area.

That diversity is part of the farmers market appeal, Merrigan said. In many communities, farmers markets are about more than produce. They're places where shoppers can buy ugli heirloom tomatoes while listening to music played by a band of retirees, for example.

"They are places where people can come together," she said.

Additional Information:

Steps for safety

Clean : Wash hands, utensils and cutting boards before and after contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs.

Separate : Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood apart from foods that won't be cooked.

Cook : Use a food thermometer. You can't tell when food is fully cooked safely by how it looks.

Chill : Refrigerate leftovers and takeout food within two hours. Keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees or below.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Additional Information:

Eating local

The top 10 states for farmers markets in 2011:

California: 729

New York: 520

Michigan: 349

Illinois: 305

Ohio: 278

Pennsylvania: 266

Massachusetts: 255

Iowa: 237

Wisconsin: 231

North Carolina: 217

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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