Scripps Howard News Service - Wherever they shop -- at a farmers market, supermarket or restaurant -- consumers should bring a healthy sense of awareness and skepticism.
"All food has the potential to cause foodborne illness," said Barbara Kowalcyk, who leads the nonprofit Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention in Raleigh, N.C. A scientist (biostatistician), she became a food-safety advocate after her 2-year-old son, Kevin, died in 2001 from eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.
The burger didn't come from a farmers market. But the tragedy changed how Kowalcyk chooses food for herself and her family at any venue.
"Certainly, when I go to the farmers markets, I'm looking to see how clean the facility is," she said. "I will ask questions -- particularly about food that's been sitting out, especially meat and cheese products."
And when buying produce, especially if it will be consumed raw or partially cooked, Kowalcyk said she passes up anything "with broken skin. It has potential for bacteria to get inside."
To supplement existing protections and offset shortcomings in the U.S. food-safety system, she and other experts urge consumers to observe and ask questions. Among them:
At producer-only markets, vendors can share firsthand details about how a product was grown, prepared and handled. Otherwise, they should indicate the farm of origin.
Cleanliness -- of hands, cutting boards and utensils -- is the most effective deterrent to contamination. Hand sanitizers will suffice, "but they're still way less than optimal," said Lee-Ann Jaykus, a North Carolina State University food-science professor and lead researcher on a new $25 million federal grant to study norovirus.
Found in human feces and spread by contact, norovirus is "the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis worldwide. You only need a few virus particles to make you ill."
Meat, poultry and dairy products should be held at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Hot, ready-to-eat foods should be at least 140 F.
Do your part. Come to market with clean bags -- and an insulated one, if you're buying temperature-sensitive foods, experts say. And remember to thoroughly wash what you buy before serving it to your family.
See more advice from the federal Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at foodsafety.gov/blog/farmers_market
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
More Don't Waste Your Money
More people are grilling with gas these days. Consumer Reports tested more than 100 gas grills costing from less than $200 to more than $2,000.