From seed to salad plate, the journey that Delaware fresh fruits and vegetables undergo can be eventful. As they sprout from the soil, are harvested by human hands and tumble from bushel basket to market display, Delaware Cooperative Extension experts are making every effort to ensure Delaware produce travels safely from farm to fork.
Certain fruits and vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach and cabbage, are more vulnerable to contamination and therefore riskier for consumers, says Gordon Johnson, University of Delaware extension specialist and assistant professor in plant and soil science. Produce that grows at or near soil level, such as cauliflower, and fruits, such as raspberries and strawberries, that are individually hand-picked, have an increased chance of transmitting dangerous bacteria.
The two biggest biological trouble makers, Johnson says, are salmonella and E. coli bacteria, specifically a recent strain, Escherichia coli 0157.H7. These pathogens have become infamous newsmakers.
In 2006, an E. coli outbreak in spinach grown in 26 states, received national attention and devastated an industry that is still recovering from the repercussions. In 2008, a similar scare struck tomato growers and tomato sales plummeted.
Neither outbreak had a Delaware origin and that is a track record Delaware intends to maintain.
Recognizing a need in the industry, in 2008, through a grant with the Delaware Department of Agriculture, Johnson and Sue Snider, UD extension specialist, met with other Delaware Extension colleagues to develop a proactive plan to educate commercial growers about the origins and prevention of food borne pathogens in produce. In addition to agriculture and horticulture agents, family and consumer science educators contributed to the outreach strategy for a complete approach to educate those at the front line of food production – where it grows.
“Family and consumer sciences had already been doing food safety training in the service industry,” Johnson says. “Together with those of us who work on the agriculture end, working with produce growers, it made sense.” Further collaboration with Delaware State University, Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association of Delaware (FVGAD) and the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA) coalesced into the first formalized session offered to growers in 2009.
The training sessions have been a success. “We have trained more than 200 growers with 156 being certified,” Johnson says. “Another 100 farm workers have also been trained in workplace and personal hygiene.” Now in their third year, the voluntary trainings, free to growers, will be offered in 2011 in March and April at all three county Extension offices.
Food safety trainings are separated into two categories: a three-hour workshop for small scale growers, who typically supply to or sell through farmers markets, road side stands and u-pick locations; and a six-hour training designed for large scale growers who sell wholesale. Each session reinforces and assists producers in understanding and implementing national Good Agricultural and Good Handling Practices (GAPs and GHs) in their operations. The longer session also offers certification sponsored by the DDA.
Although the certification process is voluntary, industry is requiring self-regulation. Newsworthy contaminations at fast food restaurants are also motivating the industry to act. Produce buyers for well-known, national retailers and regional supermarket chains are demanding that their suppliers and growers complete the certification process and enforce this compliance with private audits.
“They are insisting on it,” Johnson says. Retailers want to reduce their liability for food borne illnesses, Johnson explains, and want to ensure, through record keeping, that their suppliers are implementing nationally recognized best practices. “They want to make sure growers are doing everything they can to keep produce safe,” he adds.
The audit process can be extensive. “It’s a massive amount of record keeping,” Johnson continues. “Large growers may consider hiring someone full time. A minimum of one two hours a day in record keeping is necessary.” Future plans in cooperation with FVGAD to assist growers in creating written plans, necessary for the audits, is in the works.
The current strain of E.coli is particularly troublesome, with the potential to cause internal bleeding. “Pathogens we are working with now are not the pathogens from the past,” Johnson explains. “We’ve seen shifts in the pathogens. E.coli has picked up some genes from other bacteria. Bacteria share genes all the time and this new exchange has made this particular strain toxic.”
Tracy Wootten, Extension’s horticultural agent for Sussex County, sees the same pressures facing smaller growers. Many of her constituents are medium to small producers who supply local farmers markets and small operations that provide organic produce. “People care about their industry and their farms,” Wootten says. “They have gone into this voluntarily. It shows they want to support it and be safe. It gives them an advantage.”
In Sussex County, the sessions are presented through Extension teamwork. Joining Wootten and Johnson are Anne Camasso, family and consumer science agent and Cory Whaley, agriculture agent.
In addition to the annual GAP and GHP workshops and certification sessions, Extension professionals are available to provide more specific onsite inspections, survey individual produce operations, conduct mock audits and pinpoint areas of improvement. Extension educators focus on four critical areas of fruit and vegetable production: assuring a safe water supply for irrigation and washing; manure application and animal management; worker hygiene; and field sanitation.
“Water integrity has been a recent revelation to growers,” Johnson says. Water testing is strongly urged and growers are taught to purify recycled wash water. Tomatoes for instance, are susceptible to water borne bacteria and must be washed properly. Wootten agrees. “Water temperature is crucial,” she adds. “If the wash water is not at the appropriate temperature, it can draw contaminates into the fruit.”
By far, the biggest and most dangerous villain is the bacteria E. coli. “Excluding animal manure from fields is crucial,” Johnson says. Warm-blooded animals from livestock and wildlife can carry E.coli bacteria in their guts and excrete them onto fields. Extension agents strongly advise that all livestock production be segregated completely from crop production. “We don’t want to see raw manure or use of other bio-solids around the time to harvest,” Wootten adds. The heat from properly composted manure kills bacteria and is safe to use 120 days prior to harvest.
Controlling wildlife is more challenging, Johnson admits. “It’s difficult to keep a deer from depositing waste in a field.” Avian wildlife is less of an issue according to Johnson. Another preventative is sanitation at the field site. “Harvest containers, knives, bins, trucks and any equipment that come in contact with produce,” Johnson says, are all targets of evaluation with growers.
The human component however, is a big factor. E. coli and the virus hepatitis can be transferred by people. “All produce is handled,” Johnson says. “Hand washing, hand washing, hand washing-it is a big thing.” Training stresses the importance of having proper wash stations available for workers, especially after using restrooms.
It is this stage of the training session where Anne Camasso provides a literal hands-on demonstration with “glo germ” lotion (fake germs) and ultraviolet lamp. Growers are asked to “contaminate” their hands with the purple virtual germs and then wash their hands. Hands are put under the UV light before and after to see how well they did with the sanitation exercise.
“They are surprised to see a lot of the purple glo-germs are still there,” Camasso says. “They thought they had done a good job!” Camasso explains that calluses on hands are rough and can trap bacteria. A nailbrush should be used to thoroughly clean fingernails and knuckles and any place with skin wrinkles, just like cantaloupes.
The round fruit with the thick, but fissured skin can harbor bacteria. As Cooperative Extension specialists and growers become increasingly proactive in food safety, the individual consumer also has a major safety role to play. Produce can be handled by multiple people while in stores. The kitchen knife can be an extension agent too – the wrong kind. Contamination in the home remains an issue.
A knife used for meats should never be used for produce. “If you chop one vegetable and something is wrong with it, and go to another with the same knife, the consumer can cross contaminate,” Wootten says, adding that everyone has a responsibility. “Growers are doing their job and doing everything they can to keep it from being contaminated when it gets to house. What the consumer does is equally important.”
Johnson points out that consumption of raw produce remains the biggest concern. Properly cooked, the threat is diminished. Fruits and vegetables that go through commercial processing in cans and jars and frozen packaging are safe for consumers.
Johnson is mindful that for Delaware farmers, training of safe food handling is yet another obligation to fit into what is already a busy schedule. Regulations, be they voluntary or mandatory, are ever on the horizon. “It’s another step they have to do, but they are appreciative of the information we provide.”
Article and photo by Michele Walfred