With dedicated foodies hounding the public to be "locavores," consumers of locally grown farm products, and the health watchdogs urging increasingly obese Americans to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, it is no wonder that the number of farmers markets has soared to 7,175 nationwide, up 17 percent from a year earlier.
Even first lady and nutrition advocate Michelle Obama endorsed and christened a weekly farmers market across the park from the White House.
The markets range from a farmer selling fresh corn and tomatoes roadside from the back of a truck to summer-long tent encampments at the county fairgrounds. Americans enjoy the markets and the vendors enjoy the interaction with their customers, who tend to become regulars.
But just because the fruits and vegetables look good and the person selling them looks like a farmer doesn't make the produce any safer than what's available at a bricks-and-mortar supermarket.
Last summer in Oregon, strawberries tainted with E. coli killed one person and sickened 16 others. "Natural" doesn't equate with "hygienic." Mother Nature had contaminated these strawberries naturally, by deer feces. Oregon requires vendors to sell only what they grow, but some of these strawberries were purchased and resold four times before they reached the consumer.
As Carol Guensburg of Scripps Howard News Service reports in her look at food safety in farmers markets, an even worse outbreak followed that summer. Cantaloupes tainted with Listeria bacteria -- some of which were sold at farmers markets -- killed at least 30 people and sickened 46 others in 28 states last summer. The outbreak was traced to poor sanitation in a single Colorado farm.
Foodborne illnesses are not just a Third World problem. In the U.S., they kill 3,000 and send 128,000 to the hospital each year. The federal government doesn't have the staff or the funds to do exhaustive monitoring, and its recently tightened food-safety laws exempt small farmers and producers. In the last few years, at least 20 states have introduced or passed legislation that lets individuals sell homemade foods direct to customers -- yes, at farmers markets -- often without inspection or oversight. Some states permit the sale of salsas, pickles and other higher-risk items.
In other words, government isn't always looking out for you. State and local governments decide whether to inspect farmers markets, how extensively and how often. Farmers-market industry groups are introducing voluntary standards, guidelines and best practices to protect their customers and their businesses.
Farmers markets are a welcome, and healthy, supplement to the American diet. But don't be shy about asking questions at your local farmers market. If they're any kind of farmers, they'll be happy to talk your ear off. And do what your mother told you: Scrub those raw fruits and vegetables, and wash your hands!