Food Poisoning at Pennsylvania Farmers Markets

April 1, 2019

Farmers markets offer food that is fresh and produced locally, but that food can give you a wicked case of food poisoning. In fact, a Penn State University study published Nov. 1 in Food Protection Trends evaluated how safely vendors handled food at more than 40 Pennsylvania farmers markets and found that many didn’t follow even basic sanitary practices to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses.

How serious is food poisoning? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that every year in the U.S., there are …

  • 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses
  • 128,000 hospitalizations due to food poisoning
  • 3,000 foodborne illness-related deaths.

Many food poisoning cases result from negligent handling and preparation of food products, and anyone who has caused harm should be held accountable.

What the researchers found

Researchers from Penn State did a five-year study assessing food safety behaviors at Pennsylvania farmers markets using direct concealed observations, state sanitarian observations, and self-reported vendor surveys. They checked samples of produce and meat obtained from farmers markets in Pennsylvania for the presence of bacteria which indicate poor hygiene practices — coliforms, fecal coliforms, Listeria, and E. coli.

The results showed reason to be concerned: E. coli was present in 40 percent of beef samples; 18 percent of pork samples; 28 percent of kale samples; 29 percent of lettuce samples; and 17 percent of spinach samples. Listeria was found in 8 percent of beef samples; 2 percent of kale samples; 4 percent of lettuce samples; and 7 percent of spinach samples.

The researchers felt there was a discrepancy between the safety precautions vendors thought or claimed they were taking and what they were actually observed doing. One major problem was improper use of disposable gloves. Less than a quarter of the vendors even had them, and about half of those who used them did so improperly by not changing them when they were supposed to, including keeping the same gloves on after handling raw meat or money.

Symptoms of food poisoning

Sometimes it is difficult to know you have food poisoning because symptoms may not appear for hours or days after eating contaminated food.

Symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Blood in your stool
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Severe abdominal cramps
  • Fever and headaches
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Muscle aches

It is important to seek medical attention immediately due to risk of dehydration and to identify the organism that made you sick.

What can be done

The incidence of food poisoning can be decreased by taking certain precautions to shop safely at famers markets and handle food safely at home:

  • Observe vendors to make sure they use gloves whenever they handle food and change them when necessary.
  • Don’t buy raw milk and raw milk cheeses unless
  • Buy perishables that need to be kept cold at the end of your trip.
  • Make sure products such as meat or chicken have been kept refrigerated.
  • Bring your own cooler or insulated bag with ice to keep meat cool.
  • Practice food safety at home. Follow the four C’s—cleaning, cooking, preventing cross-contamination, and chilling. Wash fruits and vegetables under running water right before eating, cutting or cooking them.

What to do if you have food poisoning

If you think you have food poisoning, you should take steps to protect your health and legal rights:

  • Seek medical treatment, as food poisoning can become fatal if untreated and early diagnosis can help establish the source of the problem.
  • Keep evidence, including food you believe is contaminated and receipts from where you bought the food, medical bills and other illness-related expenses.
  • Write down everything you recall about where you bought the food, symptoms, how you were diagnosed and impacts of your illness for evidence should you file a lawsuit.