As Lincoln County prepares for the 40th Apple Festival next week, county Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Sciences Leigh Guth reminds local residents to keep food safety practices in mind — an idea she has been working with heavily over the last few years.
Guth tried on her investigative shoes earlier this summer as she worked with N.C. State Assistant Professor and Cooperative Extension Food Safety Specialist Benjamin Chapman to uncover how safe (or not) the foods were at a Farmer’s Market, outside county limits.
“Over 48 million people a year get sick from food-borne illnesses,” Chapman told the Times-News on Thursday. “This isn’t just a statistic; these are real people who get sick and are affected by things that got onto their food, somehow. A lot of it is preventable, too. We need to stop these illnesses.”
Chapman authors online-based writings that focus around various food safety topics on his sites, such as Barf and N.C. Fresh Produce Safety blogs. The county cooperative extension website has featured items from Chapman, whom Guth has worked with for years.
“Food safety is something we’re always paying attention to,” Guth said. “And until we really know what’s happening in the field, we can’t tell how to improve it.”
Guth was a secret shopper for Chapman and his grant project that looks deeper into best practices at Farmer’s Markets in the state, and how to ensure that managers and vendors are offering safe food at their events.
The local agent “shopped” two years ago, reported her results which were delivered to more than 700 people in North Carolina, and went back in June to see if progress was made since her last visit. After her work with Chapman, she noticed things about local markets that she wanted to see changed, such as the addition of a hand-washing station outside of the portable bathrooms. Now, the Denver location has a place for those wanting to wash their hands without having to step inside of the bathroom; she hopes to make the change to the Lincolnton market in the future, too.
Now parents have the option to ask their children to wash their hands before handling anything they are planning on eating, Guth noted, while the new addition also gives patrons and vendors the assurance that products are being touched by clean hands.
Aside from using soap and water to clean hands, the produce stands also have alcohol-based sanitizer stations — the then-only source to kill bacteria on the sites. Chapman, however, didn’t think that should be the only way for customers to get their hands clean. Hand sanitizers are an acceptable tool to use, but don’t do a lot against preventing viruses, Chapman said.
Another discovery Guth made while doing her fieldwork — a vendor who was selling soup he or she had canned at home. Both illegal and dangerous, the agent informed the vendor that something that seemed harmless could ruin the seller’s life; if someone was to get sick from the product, it could hurt the vendor financially and cause legal burdens as well.
The mystery shopper work that 20 extension agents performed on 32 sites in various areas throughout the state, was part of the research aspect of Chapman’s study, funded by the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. Now he is working on the curriculum development portion of the effort to find the best, and cleanest, practices.
Chapman’s goal is to develop food safety communication and training materials for vendors and managers at Farmer’s Markets, he said, in order to understand what is currently being done in hopes of eliminating “at risk” factors.
Barf Blog, which he co-authors with Doug Powell, addresses these food-related sicknesses that are talked about in the news and are affecting anyone from athletes to small-town residents. The duo strives to put a “food-safety spin” on topics in the media that some don’t think about to ensure safety “from farm to fork.”
“We wanted to create a forum for these issues; the idea was to create the best way to communicate the risks,” Chapman said.
Popular topics the site includes range from local foods and restaurant inspections to risky foods pregnant women should avoid.
Other local efforts to promote food safety include a class with Melinda Houser at the Citizen’s Center next week, which those who will be involved with food-handling at the Apple Festival must attend prior to the Sept. 15 event.