MOUNT HOPE, Ohio — Food bought from a produce stand or a public auction is usually safe, as long as common sense is practiced when handling and preparing it, health and food safety experts advise.
But what is “common sense” when it comes to handling produce and salable foods? Which foods need refrigerated and what are the consequences for failing to do so?
All food is different
Each kind of food carries its own set of guidelines for consumers to follow, but most sources agree the first step is cleanliness. Any fruits or vegetables should be cleaned before consumption, and so should the hands of those preparing and eating the food.
The authors of the Ohio State University publication, “Produce Safety at the Farm Market,” say hand washing “often is one of the most effective ways to prevent food contamination.”
But transportation and the setup of the sale area can be equally important.
OSU advises consumers and sellers to use containers that can be protected from contamination, use refrigeration and ice when appropriate, avoid transporting produce in or near vehicles that come in contact with animals and other possible contaminants. Keeping the food elevated above the ground or floor is a must.
Buying at an auction
Produce is king in rural Holmes County, Ohio, where Amish and English growers operate home-based food stands on seemingly every state highway, in addition to a few public markets, including the popular produce sales held in Mount Hope.
On a recent Wednesday — the day of the retail produce auction — buyers cast bids on several hundred dozen eggs — many which had just recently come from the farm.
Shirley Snyder, of Bellville, Ohio, managed to buy 45 dozen. She uses them to cook for her family, but is prepared to store them inside “extra refrigerators” until they are needed, she said.
Debbi Roe, of Salesville, Ohio, raises her own chickens and eggs, but attends weekly to buy produce for canning. Although her children are all grown, they still share produce with each other.
“We save a lot of money doing it that way,” Roe said. “We’re always together and we share.”
Roe is serious about the safety of her food and is sure to wash it in a bleach-like solution before it’s canned. It helps to remove any contaminants — even from the open air, she said.
Jim Mullet, who manages the Mount Hope produce sale, said his staff attends food safety training and also provides food training to consumers and producers, during special growers meetings.
“If we have one problem, that can put it out of business,” Mullet said. “We try to stay ahead of it.”
Growers meetings are a big part of the food safety agenda at New Wilmington Produce in Pa., said owner and manager Don Braham.
He stresses the importance of keeping farm animals and pets completely separate from produce, and keeping it above ground-level and anything else that comes along.
“We stay on our growers pretty heavily,” he said, noting that one bad experience can scar the sale’s reputation for all.
What health officials say
In West Virginia, Commissioner of Agriculture Gus Douglass recently advised his state’s residents to be careful of buying out-of-date foods and foods that are not properly refrigerated.
“Consumers really need to take a close look at the expiration dates on meat products before they begin bidding,” he said in a release. “When you buy at the grocery store, you can be assured that the Department of Agriculture is checking dates, storage areas and cooler temperatures on a regular basis. When you buy food at an auction, it’s difficult to know for sure where that product has been stored and for how long.”
But many produce sales and stands actually have fresh products, often harvested much sooner than the grocery chains, Braham said.
Some of his growers enter their fields as early as 3 a.m. on sale day, with a headlight around their forehead, to begin harvesting for that day’s sale.
Terri Gerhardt, assistant chief for Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Division of Food Safety, said raw produce is not inspected by the USDA. However, some larger distribution warehouses may choose to undergo a grading system, she said.
Meat is always inspected, except for poultry, which allows for smaller growers to sell through a registered auction or farm market.
Ultimately, a consumer should keep the same precautions in mind, wherever the food is bought.
“It’s (an auction) no different than the grocery store,” she said. “You want to make sure it looks fresh, firm (and) looks like it hasn’t been sitting out for days.”
Because raw produce is not considered a hazardous food, the local health department typically does not inspect it, said officials with the Holmes County General Health District.
The buy-local impact
Interest in farmers markets is growing, and when good measures are followed by producer and consumer, the impact on local communities is generally positive.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported nearly 5,300 markets nationwide, a 13 percent increase over last year.
“It provides a chance to buy fresh, locally produced foods and I think a lot of people are looking for that,” said ODA’s Gerhardt.