From stores or farms, food safety a priority - WHLT 22 Connecting the Pine Belt

From stores or farms, food safety a priority

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Agriculture is North Carolina's No. 1 industry, and a growing part of that comes in the farm-to-fork movement.   Hundreds of farmers markets dot the state and it's a billion-dollar industry nationwide.  

"The freshness, you can't beat," Russell Shinn said as he rubbed his hands against the cold morning air at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh.

Shinn is a chef at the Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Cary.  He has a lot to consider when he goes to the farmers market each week.  Today he's thinking about his seasonal menu for February, which features his restaurant's popular side dish of collard greens.

"You're looking for a nice crunch," Shinn explained as he grabbed a bundle of collards on ice and gave them an expert twist, breaking the leaves and eliciting a satisfactory sound.

"Brought these in this morning," Shinn said as he placed the bundle down and pointed to the boxes of collards the stall vendors had stacked up in front of his car's open truck.  "I trust these guys, so I know they're are fresh."

Lucky 32 gets nearly half of its produce within 400 miles of the restaurant.  It‘s all part of the "NC 10% Campaign," in which restaurants pledge to spend that portion of their food cost locally.

Produce – such as collard greens – is the No. 1 food product you can find at farmers markets.  It's also the No. 1 type of food that causes illness.

And that raises the question – is food bought at markets as safe going to the grocery store?

To combat food-borne illnesses, federal regulations got stricter in 2011.  They shifted the focus to preventing contamination instead of merely responding to it.

Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner for consumer protection with North Carolina's Department of Agriculture, touts those tightened rules as "the largest change in food regulation in our lifetime."

His job is to make sure your food is safe.  But he does it with only 24 inspectors spread out over 6,000 locations.

They use a "risk-based" approach to determine how frequently they inspect each place.  It's a tough task, especially with today's stricter rules from Washington.

"We're going to need people.  We're going to need resources," Reardon said.  "We're going to need the federal government to step up."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans get food poisoning each year.  Around 128,000 people are hospitalized with it and 3,000 die from all types of food poisoning.

There are no numbers for how many of those might come from farmers markets. But the markets aren't immune to illness:

  • In 2000, E. coli linked to produce at a farmers market in Colorado got 14 people sick and forced two children to get dialysis.
  • In the summer of 2010, authorities linked 53 cases of salmonella to products sold at two Iowa farmers markets.
  • In 2011, E. coli linked to strawberries sold at farmers markets and roadside stands in Oregon got 16 people sick with two people suffering kidney failure.

Reardon with the NCDA has no doubt the farmers markets are safe.

"The products that you find at your farmers market have been subject to regulation for a long, long time here in North Carolina," Reardon said.  "We collect hundreds of samples a year right off the farm."

According to Reardon, no matter where you buy your food – whether at a farmers market, grocery story or restaurant – it had the same likelihood of being inspected.

But WNCN learned you actually are your best safety net.  Cross-contamination in the home is responsible for a lot of food illnesses.

"We can distribute a safe product.  We can sell a safe product," Reardon said.  "But when that product gets in that home, that consumer needs to know how to prepare it, how to cook that product and how to serve that product."

And Chef Shinn – back at Lucky 32's kitchen – knows preparation is paramount.

"We're going to triple wash them to remove all the dirt," Shinn said as his employees dumped the freshly purchased collard greens into a stainless steel, industrial-sized sink.

Farmers Market tips:

  • Make sure free samples are covered.
  • Food items should be at least 6inches above the ground.
  • Fresh-cut produce should be chilled with no signs of spoiling.
  • Garbage bags shouldn't be used to store food.
  • Never reuse grocery bags from a vendor.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

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