Demonstrations and taste testing are effective ways to promote products at farmers’ markets

Food safety is an important consideration when offering product samples.

Sampling is one of the most commonly used marketing techniques in the food business and can be an effective way to increase sales. The small investment made in offering samples can lead to greater profits, but use caution to ensure proper food safety of the samples.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development provides guidelines for vendors offering samples at farmers’ markets. These guidelines are based on the food safety principles of time and temperature control, cross contamination and good hygiene practices.

Avoid hand contact when preparing samples by using disposable gloves. Samples should be prepared using clean utensils on site. Soiled knives, cutting boards, etc. should be replaced every two hours with clean ones and the soiled items should be kept in a closed bag or container. If foods are to be prepared in advance the preparation must take place in a licensed kitchen and not at home.

The exception to this rule is if foods are being sold under the Cottage Food Law in which case, the samples may be prepared at home. Cottage Food vendors are only allowed to offer food samples that are safe at room temperature, such as baked goods.

All fruits and vegetables should be rinsed thoroughly with clean water. MDARD recommends rinsing melons in a 200 parts per million chlorine solution prior to slicing.

Monitoring temperatures of samples should be a routine procedure. This can be easily accomplished with a metal stem instant read thermometer. Meat items that are cooked should be held at 135 degrees F or above. This may be done in an electric skillet or slow cooker. Refrigerated items should be kept on ice or in coolers that are continuously drained.

Preventing cross contamination by the environment and customers sampling foods is extremely important. All food samples should be under cover. Plastic domed serving trays are useful for many types of samples. Present samples so that there is no bare hand contact with the samples. This can be accomplished by using toothpicks or placing samples in small individual plastic or paper cups or cupcake liners. Allow plenty of space between samples so a customer does not touch more than one sample with their hands. Samples should be closely monitored to ensure safety.

MDARD Inspectors who inspect at farmers’ markets may answer specific questions regarding sampling. Inspectors can be reached by calling 800-292-3939. In some communities, local health departments may also have restrictions regarding food sampling and may provide guidance.

The Michigan State University Product Center can assist entrepreneurs in producing and marketing food products by providing guidance in business plan development, marketing and navigating the regulatory maze.

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