How Ontario farmers take food safety on the road
When Dave Kranenburg heads to farmers’ markets he spends most of the time fretting.
Every hour in the sun means one less day his mushrooms will last and increases the chances that his coolers of poultry will defrost, so the owner of Kendal Hills Game Farm in Clarington, Ont. packs plenty of ice and pushes for a tent in the shade.
“My biggest stresses have always been on a hot day,” said Kranenburg, who hauls his fungi and fowl to four GTA markets every spring and summer.
“My biggest fear is someone getting ill from eating my food. It would be a huge blow.”
He and other farmers’ market vendors – often contending with no running water or electricity – are pros when it comes to spotting and mitigating food safety concerns. However, it’s a more tricky task for inexperienced shoppers that pack markets in the warm months and run the risk of getting ill if they buy something from the rare vendor that has accidentally mishandled food or not noticed a mishap.
Markets generally undergo at least one annual assessment from Toronto Public Health to identify such hazards, and vendors can seek food handler training from the city-run organization, which will investigate any suspected food-borne illnesses, outbreaks, complaints or recalls.
Spokesperson Sylvanus Thompson said in an email that TPH doesn’t offer specific tips around what farmers’ markets visitors should beware of, but pointed the Star towards general food safety awareness advice, including picking up frozen foods last and ensuring they are cold to the touch because warm temperatures give bacteria perfect conditions to grow.
Seth Goering of Forbes Wild Foods, whose business brings foraged and wild goods like fiddleheads, leeks and jams to the Sorauren and Trinity Bellwoods farmers’ markets, said his best advice is to ask questions about how something has been produced and what safety measures vendors are taking.
“They will either say something like, ‘this is my handwashing station’ or they’ll say ‘umm uh ah.’ If you get the ‘umm uh ah,’ you know to judge accordingly,” he said, noting he keeps maple syrup jugs filled with water at his station for keeping clean when he doesn’t have access to an onsite sink.
“Every once in awhile you will get someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, but people will call them on it pretty quick.”
Beyond asking questions you can also glean some trustworthiness from looking for signs or products stamped with certifications, though experts say not all farmers will seek certifications because they can be costly.
One that Kranenberg does however advise market goers look out for is the My Pick logo. It denotes that Farmers’ Markets Ontario has visited the vendor’s farm and verified not only that the farm is local, but that what they’re selling was also produced there.
Those buying meat at a market, he said, should also be on the lookout for labels and stamps that verify the animal was killed or butchered at a provincially-inspected slaughterhouse.
The lids of meat coolers can also reveal a lot too.
“You shouldn’t be seeing these things in really dirty, grimy conditions,” Kranenberg said.
But dirt isn’t always a warning sign.
“The good farmers will have ugly potatoes and carrots and cover their coolers in mud,” Goering said.
“If you see (potatoes and carrots) all washed and shiny, the shelf life on those is about half of the ones that are still carrying around globs of dirt.”
For Sophie Burova, the owner of Proton Station, Ont.-based Secret Lands Farm, discerning which vendors take food safety most seriously starts with their hands.
She recommended looking out for which booths have handwashing stations – a key tool in the fight against spreading germs – and said shoppers should watch a vendor’s glove use carefully.
“I am using so many gloves when I am serving… because I take a new pair when I serve each new person,” she told the Star over the phone, as she served up some of her cheeses, kefirs and lamb sausages at an event.
“If you are wearing gloves, it shows that you are protected for you and for your customers.”
Like Goering, she believes the best thing farmers’ market guests can do is ask lots of questions. She’s always happy to tell them about her food handler’s certification or show them her glove stash.
“How you are taking care of food is very important,” she said. “At a farmer’s market, it is not always easy to do, but you must because we are responsible for people’s health.”
To find an Ontario farmers’ market near you, go to farmersmarketsontario.com/find-a-farmers-market/
Tara Deschamps is a Toronto-based journalist and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tara_deschamps