Wherever they shop -- at a farmers market, supermarket or restaurant -- consumers should bring a healthy sense of awareness and skepticism.
"All food has the potential to cause foodborne illness," said Barbara Kowalcyk, who leads the nonprofit Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention in Raleigh, N.C. A scientist (biostatistician), she became a food-safety advocate after her 2-year-old son, Kevin, died in 2001 from eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.
The burger didn't come from a farmers market. But the tragedy changed how Kowalcyk chooses food for herself and her family at any venue.
"Certainly, when I go to the farmers markets, I'm looking to see how clean the facility is," she said. "I will ask questions -- particularly about food that's been sitting out, especially meat and cheese products."
And when buying produce, especially if it will be consumed raw or partially cooked, Kowalcyk said she passes up anything "with broken skin. It has potential for bacteria to get inside."
To supplement existing protections and offset shortcomings in the U.S. food-safety system, she and other experts urge consumers to observe and ask questions. Among them:
-- Is the market clean and organized, with vendors grouped by what they sell?
-- Does the market display information about food safety or inspections?
-- Does the market require vendors to sell only what they've raised or made, or does it let them resell merchandise? At producer-only markets, vendors can share firsthand details about how a product was grown, prepared and handled. Otherwise, they should indicate the farm of origin.
-- Do vendors have overhead shelter, such as awnings, to safeguard products from direct sun, rain and bird droppings?
-- Does the market ban pets or restrict them to a particular area or a short leash? You don't want customers petting Fido and then handling food.
-- Does the market have ready access to soap and running water for market workers and customers? Cleanliness -- of hands, cutting boards and utensils -- is the most effective deterrent to contamination. Hand sanitizers will suffice, "but they're still way less than optimal," said Lee-Ann Jaykus, a North Carolina State University food-science professor and lead researcher on a new $25 million federal grant to study norovirus. Found in human feces and spread by contact, norovirus is "the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis worldwide ... You only need a few virus particles to make you ill."
-- Is the individual stand clean and well organized? Does the vendor appear to be neat and clean?
-- Are potentially hazardous foods kept at appropriate temperatures? Meat, poultry and dairy products should be held at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Hot, ready-to-eat foods should be at least 140 F.
-- Except for fresh produce, are food items kept covered? Does the vendor wear gloves or use utensils to avoid bare-hand contact? Are samples kept in containers or under plastic or served in individual containers or with toothpicks? Customers can be a source of contamination, too.
-- Do your part. Come to market with clean bags -- and an insulated one, if you're buying temperature-sensitive foods, experts say. And remember to thoroughly wash what you buy before serving it to your family.