Food Safety – A Critical Concern for all Fresh Produce Growers

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

There is increased concern with food safety and fresh produce. The FDA, State Health Departments, and State Departments of Agriculture have made food safety a priority, especially for important produce growing regions such as Delmarva. Produce buyers are increasingly seeking to control risk by monitoring the food safety programs of growers that they buy from. In addition, new FDA regulations will require that specific food safety areas be addressed by fresh produce growers.

All fresh produce growers from small to large should implement Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) for produce food safety on their farms. The following are points that all produce growers need to consider to protect their markets and address food safety proactively:

  • All produce farms should have a written food safety plan that spells out how food safety will be addressed. The plan should cover field and packing operations and address water applied to crops, soil amendments, wildlife, harvest sanitation, packing sanitation, and worker hygiene.
  • All fresh produce growers should attend training in Good Agricultural Practices and stay current by attending update sessions or advanced training each year.
  • Produce growers should be aware of the pathogens of concern and how to reduce the risk of produce contamination. For example, the southern part of Delmarva historically has had reservoir of Salmonella in the environment that needs to be addressed in food safety planning on produce farms in that area.
  • Growers should evaluate risks specific to their operations and farms and address those risks before growing and packing produce.

Because Salmonella is of particular concern in our region, special emphasis should place on addressing risks from this food borne pathogen. The following are some guidelines to reduce the risk from Salmonella (as well as other food borne pathogens):

  • Be familiar with your water source by developing a water quality profile (testing program; FDA standards)
  • Avoid using surface water for irrigation. Salmonella has been shown to survive for long periods in sediments. If surface water must be used, treatment should be considered (chlorine or peroxyacetic acid). Additionally, use screens and locate the intake far off the bottom to minimize sediment intake with surface water by pumps. Use back flow devices when refilling ponds with well water
  • Use wells that are away from possible sources of contamination (such as poultry houses, manure storage structures). New wells for irrigating fresh produce should be located with food safety in mind.
  • Do not use raw manures/litters in the season fresh produce is to be grown, particularly with high-risk produce such as leafy greens, netted melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, or peppers. In general, the longer the time interval between application of raw manures/litters and growing produce the better.
  • Wildlife may harbor Salmonella, there is an extensive range of animals that may carry Salmonella, and Salmonella may persist in animal feces. Because of this, wildlife intrusion should be monitored/scouted, being extra vigilant as the Delmarva region is a unique environment for diverse wildlife (such as waterfowl). Avoid harvesting produce in locations with visible animal feces or intrusion and make an effort to keep animals out of high risk produce fields.
  • Keep high risk produce out of risk high fields such as those that are prone to flooding, animal intrusion, or in close proximity to livestock/high risk landscape features
  • When field packing produce, practice good worker health and hygiene; use clean bins, boxes, containers, or packages; and keep bins/boxes off of the ground.
  • In the packing area enforce a strict pest management program to eliminate contamination from pests such as rodents as well as animal intruders (raccoons, birds).
  • Because Salmonella persists for longer periods on porous food contact surfaces, replace with non-porous ones.
  • Produce conveyance (dump tanks, flumes) and cleaning and washing areas (conveyers, rollers, brushes, washers) are high risk for cross contamination and must be properly sanitized. Tank, flume, hydrocooler and wash water must be treated with approved antimicrobial sanitizer (chlorine, PAA).
  • Food contact surfaces must be sanitized on a regular basis and considerations should be given to the frequency of cleaning breaks – more cleaning breaks reduces contamination risk.