KANSAS CITY, Mo. - America's increasing appetite for home grown foods has caused a boom in farmers markets. There are now more than 7,000 markets nationwide.
Despite the growing demand, a 41 Action News investigation finds food safety efforts haven't necessarily kept pace.
In Kansas and Missouri, there are no state laws requiring formal inspections of farmers markets or the farmers who grow produce. However, some markets have decided to conduct inspections on their own to insure the integrity of their markets.
At the City Market Farmers Market, you will find crowds searching for fresh produce and fresh flowers every weekend. The market is so popular, there is a waiting list on Saturdays for vendors who want to sell their produce.
Every stall is filled because farmers want to sell to families looking to buy health produce for their families.
"Probably less pesticides. Less antibiotics. Local stuff that hasn't been shipped or exposed to more bugs and disease," said John Byram, who was shopping with his daughter Charlotte at the market.
Food safety experts say Byram is right. By purchasing products at farmers markets, you have cut down the amount of time it takes for the produce to get to you. That means there's less time for the food to have the chance of getting contaminated.
Still, food safety experts say farmers market still have the potential to cause food borne illness. They know it happens, but it is difficult to say how often. That is because the food produced is in such small quantities it is difficult to attribute the sickness to a specific food product.
To help preserve the safety and integrity of the City Market, market master Deb Conners inspects every farm of every farmer who wants to sell at the market.
"I usually spend all day Thursday. Sometimes when we go south, it is 16-hour days. It can be a really long day and then I come home and blog about it. So it's a lot of work but I think it is well worth it," Conners said.
When she goes to farms, she walks every row of the fields. She keeps track of every type of produce grown on the farm and when it should be picked.
"It is not a state guideline but it's good for the market and it helps not mislead the customers," Conners said.
Along with ensuring farmers are indeed growing what they are selling, Conners also asks questions about where farmers get their water. She wants to make sure farmers are not using contaminated water that could cause a food borne illness.
"I look to make sure there are not animals running rampant in the fields, cows or pigs or chickens, because that would contaminate the produce, so I look for those things," Conners explained. "And I am glad to say our vendors do a really good job so it is always good to see."
However, not every farmers market goes to the lengths the City Market does to make sure vendors are on the up and up.
We researched some of the more popular markets in our area to find out what they do to keep patrons safe.
The Overland Park also inspects vendors to make sure they are growing the produce sold.
In addition, the market manager told us they require vendors to have general liability insurance, temporary food permits from the city if they serve food or samples, commercial kitchen licenses, the appropriate licenses from the Kansas Department of Agriculture for whatever product they sell, and vendors must label all pre-packaged items.
The Gladstone Farmer's Market also visits sites and like the City Market and posts a blog for customers to read about who is growing their food.
According to its website, the Brookside Market reserves the right to inspect farms.
Some markets do not do inspections at all which is why food safety experts encourage you to take advantage of the fact you can actually speak to the farmer about how your food is grown.
"I really just ask did you grow this then they know how it is produced and they know that I am holding them accountable," said Tammy Roberts, a food safety expert with the University of Missouri Agriculture Extension Office.
What can you do
To protect yourself, make sure samples are covered and vendors are using toothpicks or gloves to serve them.
Make sure temperature sensitive things like meat and eggs are refrigerated. Make sure they have bathrooms and a water source that is clean.
Also, make sure the produce isn't directly on the ground where it can get contaminated.
"When I go out to the farmers market, one of the things that I try to ask the producers is: where are their things grown? Do they have the area fenced in and the reason for that is because of animal contamination," said Roberts.
Roberts said many of the food borne illness outbreaks, like the massive spinach outbreak in 2006, have come from animal contamination
in the fields.
"The main things with animal contamination is the risk of E. coli. It's what we have heard a lot about in the news lately and it does pose a serious risk for serious illness," said Roberts.
Conners, who has managed the City Market for 9 years, said she has had to kick farmers out of the market.
"Last year I had a farmer I would not let in the market. The weeds were over my head. I couldn't find the produce there was no way he was going to be able to bring things to the market or quality produce. I've had vendors when I show up to their farm and there is no farm. It's a residential area. There's no farm not even a backyard garden. So those vendors don't get into the market," Conners said.
However, she says most of the farmers have great pride in their produce.
"They know if there is a food borne outbreak at the city market the market is done. Their lively hood is over. So it is very important to them to keep everything safe," she said.
Food safety experts say you can also cut down your risk of getting a food borne illness by washing your produce in cool water right before you prepare to eat it. If you wash it and then put it in the fridge, the moisture on the produce can breed bacteria.
Also, make sure to wash the outside of watermelon and cantaloupe. Even though you do not eat the outside, when you cut through it with a knife, the knife could spread bacteria into the fruit.
Here are some helpful links about farmers markets and how to keep your family safe.
- Missouri Dept. of Agriculture on farmers markets - http://bit.ly/MOdoaFM
- Missouri Dept. of Agriculture Farmers Market Food Safety PDF - http://bit.ly/MOfmSafe
- Missouri Farmers Market Handbook - http://bit.ly/MoFMH
- Kansas Dept. of Agriculture Farmers Market PDF - http://bit.ly/KS_fm
- Kansas Dept. of Agriculture Farmers Market Food Safety link - http://bit.ly/KSfmSafe
- Blog for City Market - http://bit.ly/CM_FM
- Blog for Gladstone Market - http://bit.ly/GL_FM
- Facebook page for Overland Park Market - http://bit.ly/OP_FM