March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Shopping at a farmers market offers some of the freshest fruits, vegetables and other foods you can find. It also offers the opportunity to buy locally, support small farms and businesses in your area and connect with your community. There are several thousand farmers markets operating in the United States, with more opening every year. Farmers markets offer unique local products you often can't find elsewhere, including local varieties of vegetables and fruits, artisan cheeses, fresh potted herbs, homemade sauces, oven-fresh baked goods and locally produced poultry, eggs and meat.
As you explore farmers markets in your area, be mindful of food safety. Vendors often sell outdoors where their products are exposed to contaminants such as dirt, bugs and pollutants. In addition, market sites often have little access to water for hand and product washing, and electricity for refrigerating. This does not mean you should avoid farmers markets, just be mindful.
Pay attention to vendors' food safety practices as you shop. Most markets have their own food safety rules that vendors must comply with, as well as related government regulations. But, there are also basic guidelines you should follow to ensure farm-fresh food is safe. Check the stand's overall cleanliness, including gloves and clean utensils for food handling, covered garbage cans, coolers for perishables and clean bags.
Take time to talk to and learn from vendors. Many small farmers are eager to talk about their growing methods and how they store and prepare produce and care for their animals. They may even invite you for a farm visit.
Follow these guidelines to reduce your risk of bringing home a case of food poisoning.
Reusable grocery totes are a popular, eco-friendly choice to transport food, but be sure to use separate totes for raw meat and poultry and ready-to-eat foods such as fresh produce and breads.
Wash your reusable totes often. According to a 2011 survey from the Academy's and ConAgra Foods' Home Food Safety program, only 15 percent of Americans regularly wash their bags, creating a breeding zone for harmful bacteria that can easily contaminate your foods. Eliminate bacteria by:
- Frequently washing your grocery tote, either in the washing machine or by hand with hot, soapy water
- Cleaning all areas where you place your totes, such as the kitchen counter
- Storing totes in a clean, dry location
- Avoiding leaving empty totes in the trunk of a vehicle.
Fruits and Vegetables
In 2011, Listeria-contaminated produce caused the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in nearly 90 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Harmful foodborne pathogens such as E. Coli, Salmonella, Listeria and norovirus may contaminate fruits and vegetables from the soil or water or during harvesting. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce your risk:
- Shop early in the day for the best selections.
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water before eating, cutting or cooking. Dry with a clean cloth or paper towel to eliminate bacteria.
- Wash produce even if you plan to peel it before eating. Bacteria present on the outside of foods such as melons and bananas can be transferred to the inside when you cut or peel them.
- Refrigerate cut or peeled fruits and vegetables within two hours.
- Avoid produce with mold, bruises or cuts, as these are great places for bacteria to hide and spread rapidly to other places on the fruit.
Milk and Cheeses
- Buy only pasteurized milk products.
- Pregnant women, older adults, young children and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for illness caused by Listeria. Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk are one common source of Listeria. If you buy soft cheese, including feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, queso blanco, queso fresco and panela, check the label to make sure it's made from pasteurized or treated milk.
- Eggs should be properly chilled at 45°F.
- Make sure eggs are clean and the shells are not cracked.
- Meat should be kept in closed coolers with adequate amounts of ice.
- Perishables must be refrigerated within two hours (one hour if the air temperature is above 90°F), so bring an insulated bag or cooler to keep meat cool on the way home.
- Separate meat from other ready-to-eat foods, so juices from raw meat (which may contain harmful bacteria) do not come in contact with produce and other foods. This includes using separate grocery totes.
Juices and Cider
- Buy only juice or cider that has been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems should be especially careful.
Many farmers markets sell prepared foods. Remember, foods that should be served hot should be kept hot, and cold foods should be kept cold (under 40°F). If you buy perishable items, they should not remain unrefrigerated for over two hours, and only one hour in hot weather (90°F or above).