U.S – A group of Penn State researchers have created and put to the test a tailored training curriculum for farmers’ market vendors in response to a demand identified in their earlier study.

Inadequate food safety practices among farmers’ market vendors is a problem in Pennsylvania and other states, according to team leader Catherine Cutter, Professor of Food Science and Assistant Director of Food Safety and Quality Programs for Penn State Extension. 

The training wraps up several years of research and addresses this issue, courtesy of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the United States Department of Agriculture and Penn State Experiment Station who jointly financed the study.

The training and research, according to Cutter, are especially important at a time when the farmers market movement is growing and direct-to-consumer sales of locally produced agricultural goods are both common and exceptionally well-liked.

An expert food safety training program for farmer’s market vendors was created and successfully pilot-tested by a group of Penn State researchers in response to a need identified in their earlier studies.

Consistent with 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has increased to more than 8,600, amounting to approximately $2.8 billion in agricultural sales. 

Despite representing less than 1% of all agricultural sales in the United States, direct-to-consumer sales had a substantial impact on the 130,056 farms that participated in it in 2017 as well as the millions of people who bought the agricultural products.

Nevertheless, Cutter noted that despite these advantages, many working in public health are now aware of the underlying threats to food safety posed by this loosely regulated food sector.

“In most states, farmers market vendors and their food products may not be inspected by local, state or federal public health inspectors, so the safety of foods sold at farmers markets may be unknown.

“Farmers’ market vendors may be uncertified or untrained in food processing and food safety concepts,” she said.

Joshua Scheinberg, a member of the study team and a former doctorate candidate in Cutter’s research group in the College of Agricultural Sciences, led the study as part of his doctoral thesis research with backing from the Penn State Extension educators.

A resource manual and a PowerPoint presentation are both part of the Farmers Market Food Safety training program.

The PowerPoint presentation slide collection and related training exercises were created by Penn State Extension educators with expertise in educating consumers about retail food safety.

The training program’s topics were carefully chosen after extensive research to specifically address the gaps found in the thorough assessment of farmers markets’ food safety requirements carried out by Scheinberg and colleagues in a previous study, as well as to cover the main tenets of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code and applicable Pennsylvania state food safety regulations.

In that previous study, researchers conducted a needs assessment using vendor and health inspector surveys, structured group interviews with farmers’ market managers, and retail food safety vendor observational analysis to identify gaps, needs, the knowledge and attitude base of farmers’ market vendors, and training preferences.

Researchers came to the conclusion that a three-hour, in-person, semi-interactive program in a classroom environment would be suitable for teaching farmers’ market vendors based on replies from vendor questionnaires and market management group interviews.

The findings of the current study, which were just published in the Journal of Extension, also showed that using a training resource manual along with conventional slide-presentation training methods significantly increased participants’ knowledge and altered their attitudes toward being a farmers market vendor.

Additionally, the findings showed that participants are aware of the significance of cleanliness, hand washing, cross-contamination, using a thermometer, and food safety risks at farmers’ markets.

Due to the positive results of this pilot research, Penn State Extension is now providing a four-hour online version of the training that was designed as an outcome of this study.

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