Food safety practices for fresh produce at farmers markets target of research project

May 8, 2014
Contact Information:

Kristen Gibson, Department of Food Science
479-575-6844 /

Dave Edmark, Division of Agriculture Communications
479-575-6940 /

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Improvement of food safety practices by fresh produce vendors at farmers markets is the goal of a major research project being led by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. One expected result of the work is development of web- and smartphone-accessible food safety materials for market vendors, managers and consumers.

The $414,185 project is a three-year effort supported by a competitive grant award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture. Kristen Gibson, assistant professor of food science in the Division, is the project director.

“The end goal of this study is to equip vendors and market managers with both scientifically-based and practical educational material that will reduce the likelihood of a foodborne illness outbreak,” Gibson said. At least 50 farmers markets in Arkansas sell fresh produce with each market having from 15 to 40 vendors, providing the research team the opportunity to reach an estimated 1,400 farmers and producers. Through channels such as the Community, Local, and Regional Food Systems practice area of eXtension, a web-based information network; the Farmers Market Coalition and the National Center for Appropriate Technology, the team’s educational materials will be available to more than 60,000 farmers nationwide who participate in 7,100 farmers markets.

Working with Gibson on the research team are co-project directors Sujata Sirsat and Jack Neal, who are both on the hotel and restaurant management faculty at the University of Houston, and project collaborator Daniel Henroid, director of nutrition and food services at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center.

The team will conduct online focus group surveys of farmers market vendors and managers nationwide to identify their current food safety practices and what training materials they use. Online focus groups will also be developed to find out about managers’ and vendors’ needs and concerns regarding food safety. Consumers in Arkansas and Texas will also be surveyed online and in person at farmers markets to determine their perceptions of the safety of produce sold there.

Researchers will also evaluate whether the configuration of vendors’ booths at the markets should be improved to avoid cross-contamination of products. They will create a web-based matrix to enable market managers to make adjustments.

“Ideally, market managers could put their current vendor booth locations into the matrix along with the hours of operation, food product with relevant pathogens of concern, available refrigeration and availability of hand washing stations to receive valuable information,” Gibson said. “The results can be used by managers to educate vendors on food safety. Managers can use the results to design market layout and reduce the risk of pathogen cross-contamination based on scientific evidence.”

New technology for smartphones and tablets will be used in the project. The team plans to develop quick response (QR) codes that managers, vendors and consumers can use at the markets to call up detailed food safety information about products. “The QR codes will link consumers to information right at the point of purchase at the market,” Gibson explained. “If they want to access information while online, the materials will be able to direct them to the larger database.”

Also, interactive “augmented reality” applications on smartphones and tablets will be used to highlight information showing users how food safety practices can reduce cross-contamination risks. “One example would be to show users the before-and-after microscopic views of food contact surfaces or produce that have been properly cleaned and sanitized,” Gibson said.

Market managers around Arkansas have told Gibson that they have noticed an increase in consumer awareness about food safety. Teresa Maurer of the Fayetteville Farmers Market told her that engaging consumers in local food systems and food safety should be a high priority and that a need existed for a one-stop shop for food safety resources aimed at farmers markets.

“These kinds of markets have been rapidly growing with many participants having little or no training in food safety,” said Scott Gilliam, food protection programs director for the Indiana Health Department in a personal communication to one of the researchers. “Data allows all of us to make better informed decisions concerning policy and resource allocations.”