Nine million Americans are stricken with foodborne illnesses each year. Twenty-three percent of outbreaks are from fresh fruit and vegetables.¹
Last year, salad mixes packaged in a Springfield, Ohio Dole facility caused 19 listeria hospitalizations.² In 2015, salmonella from cucumbers caused 204 hospitalizations and six deaths.³
Farmers aim to produce healthy and high-quality food. After all, the food we grow for our customers is the same food we feed our families. Growers can boost food safety by recognizing risks and implementing precautions on the farm.
There are four areas of risk to address on the farm: water, animals, soil and handling. The acronym W.A.S.H. reminds growers to assess each area regularly and ensure proper safeguards are in place to keep food safe for consumers.
Water. Test well water used for irrigation before the growing season begins. A water test reveals overall water quality and detects contamination. Contact your county extension office to locate a reputable water testing lab. If contaminants are detected, immediately discontinue use of the water source for irrigation and livestock consumption.
Animals. Locate food production fields away from livestock, manure and cull piles. Keep in mind that water run-off can result in accidental contamination.
Wildlife damages crops, digs holes and tunnels in terrain and leaves behind disease-ridden droppings. Keeping wildlife out of food fields can be tricky. Physical barriers like fences and netting hinder wildlife. Some growers use decoys and traps. A dog is the most effective method of wildlife control on my farm. We used to suffer losses from coyote, deer and raccoons every season. We have not had a single loss or damage since our German Shepherd went on patrol.
Soil. Soil contains natural microbes and bacteria that are not inherently hazardous to human health. However, applying raw manure or unfinished compost to food fields creates a potentially dangerous situation for pathogens to transfer to food. Farmers can reduce the risk by applying soil amendments 90 to 120 days before harvest.
Handling. Harvesting, washing, packing, loading, transporting, stocking and selling are all points at which pathogens can transfer to food.
Before handling fresh food, wash your hands with soap and water for 30 seconds and then dry them completely with a disposable paper towel. After harvest, rinse produce with potable water to remove dirt. Wash and scrub produce with an approved sanitizer at the recommended strength. The EPA maintains a list of registered sanitizing agents for washing produce. Perform a final rinse, and then dry produce completely before packing. Packing bins, harvest and washing equipment should be kept clean and in working condition.
GAP, GHP and FSMA Food Safety Regulations
Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) are best practices proven to minimize food safety risk. Although audits are voluntary, many buyers require growers to be GAP/GHP certified. Learn more about GAP certification at the Agricultural Marketing Service website.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is comprehensive food safety legislation that affects all sectors of the food industry, including farmers. Guidance, training and compliance information is available at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website.
¹Painter, J.A. et al. (March 2013). Attribution of Foodborne Illnesses, Hospitalizations, and Deaths to Food Commodities by using Outbreak Data, United States, 1998–2008. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 19 No.3, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 15, 2017, from https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/19/3/pdfs/11-1866.pdf.
²Multistate Outbreak of Listeriosis Linked to Packaged Salads Produced at Springfield, Ohio Dole Processing Facility (March 31, 2016). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 15, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/listeria/outbreaks/bagged-salads-01-16/index.html.
³Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Poona Infections Linked to Imported Cucumbers (March 18, 2016). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 15, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/poona-09-15/index.html.