Food Safety at Farmers’ Markets

By Susan Leaman June 3, 2023 | 7 MIN READ | UPDATED FROM 5/3/17

The Dirt:

Consumers flock to seasonal farmers’ markets to buy fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meat from local farmers. What food safety regulation applies to the food there? The same as or different than the fruits and vegetables we buy at the grocery store?

Sustainable Agriculture

Food Safety at Farmers’ Markets

Food Production

Food Regulations & Policy

Soil and Crop Management

By Susan Leaman June 3, 2023 | 7 MIN READ | UPDATED FROM 5/3/17

The Dirt:

Consumers flock to seasonal farmers’ markets to buy fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meat from local farmers. What food safety regulation applies to the food there? The same as or different than the fruits and vegetables we buy at the grocery store?

Who doesn’t enjoy visiting a farmers’ market and buying recently harvested fruits, veggies, jams, honey, and meats from local farms? Many times you can shake the farmer’s hand, ask questions about how they grow their food, and discuss what crops to expect this summer. This sentiment is enjoyed by many and as a result, U.S. farmers’ markets have become increasingly popular.

Popularity of U.S. farmers’ markets

Consumers love these seasonal markets – and so do our farmers. By selling at farmers’ markets, farmers can get a better profit margin on their goods as they bypass their traditional vendor to sell their freshly harvested produce and other products directly to consumers.

farmers markets, Food Safety at Farmers’ MarketsAn additional benefit of these direct-to-consumer venues is when consumers gain a better understanding of where their food comes from, and farmers can meet the people purchasing and enjoying the fruits of their labor.

But what about food safety? As consumers, how do you know these farmers have followed best food safety practices in the growing, harvesting, and processing of their harvests?

How safe are products from farmers’ markets?

The primary food safety concerns are foodborne pathogens, such as ListeriaSalmonella, pathogenic E. coli as well as norovirus that, at the least, cause gastrointestinal symptoms but, in some cases, can also cause other more serious health effects.

A farmer’s level of food safety awareness certainly affects the steps taken to prevent contamination from occurring i.e., implementing food safety practices and procedures to reduce the contamination risk. In some cases, such as with wildlife or birds infected with avian flu moving through or over a field, it is impossible to prevent potential contamination sources from contacting crops.

farmers markets, Food Safety at Farmers’ Markets

So, in these cases, farmers monitor these potential sources to minimize the possibility of pathogens being transferred to their crops.

For example, one method they may use is to look for feces on produce or the surrounding soil and not harvest product within a specified radius of the fecal material.

In researching this topic, we found several studies that tested specific produce from both farmers’ markets and grocery stores for bacteria that can serve as indicators of pathogens that could cause illness.

The study results indicated that produce from farmers’ markets typically had significantly more bacterial counts in general than produce from grocery stores.


But this is not necessarily bad since many bacteria are not harmful to humans and may even be beneficial for maintaining product quality and human health when consumed.

How is food safety monitored for smaller producers?

Most farmers selling their products at farmers’ markets qualify for some exemptions to the level of food safety regulations practiced by larger producers, as per the Food Safety Modernization Act.

This Act requires farms grossing more than $500,000 annually to follow all applicable regulations and to undergo food safety inspections. But for farms with lower annual revenues, food safety policies are more lax.

Industry leaders also have a say in the prevention of pathogenic material on produce. Those in favor of small farm exemptions and reduced requirements emphasize the cost of complying with this Act’s rules, as it could put many small farms out of business. However, both sides agree that food safety at the small farm level needs to be a priority for the health and safety of our communities throughout the United States.

At the end of the day, we want our food to be safe regardless of where it comes from, because

pathogens do not discriminate between small and large farms and local does not mean microbiologically safer.

Farmer’s markets make their own policies

State and local governments oversee farmers’ markets. For the most part, research indicates that states rely on county health departments to regulate food safety at farmers’ markets and the health departments rely on market managers to enforce food safety practices at the market.

Many state and local governments do not have adequate staffing to visit each local farmers’ market leaving food safety rule development and enforcement to the market manager.

farmers markets, Food Safety at Farmers’ Markets

In her job as liaison between the King County/Seattle (WA) Public Health Department and farmers’ markets, Jill Trohimovich, an environmental health specialist, told Food Safety News her department does “a quick walk-by” when inspecting farmers’ markets.

Public health officials from other states have made similar statements about their inspections of farmers’ markets. Dave Stockdale, a past executive director of the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, describes market managers as having “a general understanding” of agriculture and food safety guidelines, but no specific training.

Stacy Miller, a former executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, explained how the process of vetting potential farmers’ market vendors differs from one market to the next. One market may require potential vendors to fill out an application, present proof of insurance, and have an onsite inspection while others may only require proof of insurance.

An example of a more rigorous set of requirements is the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco, California. Due to limited space and enormous popularity with shoppers, this San Franciscan market requires farmers who want to sell their products to complete a 17-page application and pass an on-farm food safety and sustainability inspection by market managers.

What are farmers’ markets doing to improve food safety?

Small farmers realize that food safety is crucial for business and protecting consumers. Amy Annable, manager of sprout operations at Edrich Farms in Randallstown, MD, knows that if anyone gets sick from her sprouts it would ruin her livelihood. A foodborne illness outbreak is her “worst nightmare”—sprouts are known for being susceptible to microorganisms that cause food-borne illnesses.

So, Edrich Farms established its own food safety plan, and Amy spends extra time during the week on paperwork and testing to ensure their sprouts are safe. Many other small farmers are also starting their own food safety programs and implementing practices to keep produce safe.

Many food safety specialists in the USDA’s cooperative extension system work closely with their state’s farmers’ markets to provide food safety information to their market vendors. These programs provide workshops and online materials for both farmers and market managers.

How to be a proactive food safety shopper

When shopping at your local farmers’ market, it is valuable to proactively ask the right questions and follow certain practices to reduce your risk of getting sick from foodborne pathogens.

One researcher who investigated the correlation between foodborne illness and farmers’ markets suggested that the data may indicate that people “erroneously believe that food bought at farmers’ markets needn’t be washed because it is ‘natural’.”

It is always a good idea to follow certain food safety practice when preparing and consuming food in your home. Here are some recommendations provided by and Eat Right, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

farmers markets, Food Safety at Farmers’ Markets

The Bottom Line:

Market managers are typically in charge of food safety at the market, and the food safety policies related to both market and in-field practices vary from market to market. Nevertheless, even without federal regulation, many small-scale farmers are implementing their own food safety programs to keep their businesses thriving and communities safe.