By "buying organic", you might be purchasing more than you bargain for, according to new research citing that chickens at farmers markets carry more disease-causing bacteria than poultry at grocery stores.

"Some people believe that local food is safer, but we want to caution that's not always the case," said Dr. Catherine Cutter, a professor and food safety extension specialist at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "We are not doing the research to scare consumers or put people out of business; we're here to improve public health."

Dr. Cutter and her graduate student Joshua Scheinberg visited farmers markets and grocery stores in 17 different cities across Pennsylvania, in order to buy chickens for their study. In total, they purchased 100 whole, raw chickens from farmers markets, along 50 conventional and 50 organic birds from grocery stores.

Ninety percent of the poultry from farmers markets was positive for Campylobacter, a bacteria that is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the U.S. In contrast, fewer grocery store chickens had these germs, with conventionally processed organic birds (28 percent) having less than non-organic birds (52 percent).

The researchers found a similar pattern with Salmonella. With this bacteria, the researchers recorded similar rates from farmers market (28 percent) and commercial organic chickens (20 percent), while the lowest abundance was witnessed in conventional non-organic poultry (8 percent).

Similar rates of bacteria were recorded between fresh and frozen chickens at farmers markets.

"The fact that the chickens from farmers markets had much higher levels of Campylobacter and Salmonella indicated that there's something else going on," remarked Cutter. "So, Josh developed a survey for poultry vendors, with questions focused on processing methods, as well as food safety practices."

Most vendors knew how to properly cool and store their products, but one small survey of 21 farmers found that half "incorrectly answered questions related to pathogens and cross-contamination during processing". The researchers are now developing educational packets that highlight food safety practices - such as antimicrobial rinses - which they plan to distribute at farmers markets.

"We can train farmers and vendors to produce a safer product that won't make people sick," said Dr. Cutter. "This approach also has the potential to help consumers feel more confident about buying their locally grown and processed products."

The findings highlight the vital importance of properly and fully cooking raw meat, but chickens aren't the only potentially hazardous items sold at farmers markets, as unprocessed products such as milk, cheeses, and other types of raw meat are popular at these venues.

"In the last decade, farmers markets have become an increasingly important source of [local] food products for millions of Americans," said Joshua Scheinberg, "But as patronage continues to increase at farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer marketing channels, the risks associated with purchasing fresh products directly from the farmer or vendor must be evaluated.

Their findings were published today in the Journal of Food Safety, while the details on vendors' survey can be found in Joshua Scheinberg's Masters Thesis from June 2012.

Source: Scheinberg J, Doores S, Cutter CN. A Microbiological Comparison of Poultry Products Obtained from Farmers' Markets and Supermarkets in Pennsylvania. Journal of Food Safety. 2013.

Scheinberg J. A Microbiological Comparison of Poultry Products Obtained From Farmers' Markets and Supermarkets in Pennsylvania. Masters Thesis. Pennsylvania State University. 2012.