Food safety begins on the farm

Produce recalls are happening far too often.  Spinach, leafy greens, and sprouts are the worst culprits in the vegetable world. How are you farming to avoid a produce recall? Is food safety an integrated part of your ag practices?

Are You Using Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) on Your Farm? 

Consumers are warier of “germs” now than ever before. According to a survey by The Packerthe primary wholesale food grower publication, “…60% of consumers are more concerned today than they were a year ago about Salmonella and other bacteria on fresh produce.”  

Don’t let your farm be a suspect in a foodborne illness outbreak.  GAPs will keep your farm profitable, but a recall can hurt your business for many years.  There are 3 major areas that the USDA and the FDA are particularly concerned about.  They are 

  • Manure management 
  • Water use 
  • Health and hygiene 

Manure Management for Food Safety

Manure that has not been properly composted has the high probability of having pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter in the fecal matter. Manure also may have Listeria and the parasite Cyclospora, both of which live in the soil for years. The source of the manure cannot be understated. If you are using your livestock manure, you know your practices better than anyone, but when you have access to manure from exterior sources, don’t be shy to ask questions. The questions you ask could make a whole lot of differenceWhat is the livestock fed? What kind of environment do they live in? Are any antibiotics used on the livestock? Etc. 

Before you spread manure be sure it has gone through proper composting cycles. 

Water Management for Food Safety

If you’re irrigating out of a pond, consider all the microorganisms that are living in that water. When you pump that water onto your plants some will die because they can only live in water but some will not. If you are using an overhead sprinkling system those little critters are landing on the leaves and fruits of your labor. Are they microorganisms that could cause a plant-borne illness?  You’ll never know until you get your water tested or someone gets sick from your produce. 

Which seems like a good agricultural practice (GAP), wait and see – or be proactive?   

You’re testing water for fecal coliform. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “established a standard for reclaimed water (treated effluent) used on non-processed fresh produce of less than 2.2 fecal coliform per 1000 milliliters (ml) of water…If higher densities of fecal coliform are detected, it is suggested that growers do not use overhead irrigation.”

The same standard applies whether it’s reclaimed water, pond water, or well water. When your water tests come back and they’re below the EPA standard but have ANY fecal coliform you may want to consider drip irrigation or another water source. It’s your call, but why take chances? 

On a farm, the two most important assets are soil and water.  You can’t grow crops without them. While you want to minimize soil disturbance and maximize the beneficial microbial community, you want to maximize water retention and minimize water evaporation. If you are using overhead irrigation, its use is the most efficient in the morning. There’s less evaporation. An adequate drying time coupled with the UV rays of the sun reduce pathogen survival rates considerably.  

For all post-harvest operations potable, not surface, water should be used. Any microorganisms in water you could drink and not get sick should be ones that go to market with your produce. It’s the source of water that you’ll use to wash your product. It’s also the source of water for cleaning and sanitizing the packing shed, any picking equipment, and the truck you use to transport your product to market.  

Water is one of the best mediums for applying inputs to your fields through irrigation. It is also one of the best mediums for transporting pathogens. For that reason, testing your water should be done routinely. The frequency depends on the source of the water 

  • Municipal water – acquire test results from municipality annually 
  • Well water – test biannually and treat if any fecal coliform are present 
    • If you have a secure well, at a distance from septic systems or livestock paddocks there should never be an issue.  
    • If there is, you may have a well problem. 
  • Surface water – test quarterly in warm climates and three times a year in northern climates (at planting, at peak use, near harvest).

Keep records of all water tests

If you begin to see a change in coliform levels in your surface water source it’s time to reexamine what you and your neighbors are doing on their farms.  A farm is constantly changing, new ideas, new crops, new management practices. You may not be the only farmer in your area experimenting. 

Fertile soil and water are the raw ingredients needed for a farm.  But a farm cannot exist without your labor. Let’s look at how your laboring may impact the safety of the crop you send to market.  

Health and Hygiene for Food Safety

One of the topics we think the least about but, in the long run, may have the most impact on the safety of the food on your farm is the number of times you wash your hands and clean your boots. 

There are a number of areas in which health and hygiene affect the food safety of your crop.

  • Field sanitation – working a field before it’s had time to dry from a rain or irrigation will spread pathogens 
  • Equipment – clean your tractor and implements between uses, especially if it’s being used in both animal and crop areas 
  • Wash your hands after using the toilet – with soap and water – isn’t this a no-brainer? 
  • If you or your employees are sick, don’t touch produce 
  • Clean field soil off your boots before entering the packing shed – any soil pathogens that were in the field don’t need to be where you are washing and boxing produce 

The USDA recommends no animals in crop areas.  But in a regenerative farm animals are allies in pest control and increasing soil fertility. Poultry scratch the soil and eat insects, grazing animals in orchards eat drops which contain pest larvae. To protect yourself from a potential food recall, use the GAP of moving animals out of crop areas 10 days before harvest, this allows time for beneficial insects and microbes to take care of  any pathogens. 

Hosing down the tractor between manure runs and crop areas goes a long way in reducing pathogens. Having a protocol for farm sanitation is important for making it routine.  There are never enough hours in a farm day for all the tasks that need to be done, but if you want to avoid a produce recall its worth spending the time to map out the procedures that need to take place. They will feel awkward at first but soon they will be habit and you won’t know why you didn’t implement these steps sooner.   

What are the odds your farm will experience a produce recall? 

First, let’s look at how the USDA and Center for Disease Control (CDC) define an outbreak. 

“A food-borne outbreak occurs when two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink. When an outbreak is detected, public health and regulatory officials work quickly to collect as much information as possible to find out what is causing it so they can take action to prevent more people from getting sick. This action includes warning the public when there is clear and convincing information linking illness to a contaminated food. Federal, state, and local officials may investigate an outbreak, depending on how widespread it is.

An outbreak is two or more people.”  During 2014-2018, according to the CDC, 51 food-borne disease outbreaks were related to leafy greens alone. These outbreaks led to 1,406 illnesses which the CDC considers “only a small proportion of all illnesses caused by contaminated leafy greens…” because many food safety issues are regional or not reported.  If your farm sells wholesale to restaurants and other food processors your chance of having a recall is greater. The CDC reports that in 2016 “Ready to Eat” foods caused 59% more food-borne related illnesses than “Not Ready to Eat” foods. The less processing the lower your chance of being involved in a food recall.  

It’s not practical for most commercial growers to avoid the wholesale market so remember that food safety begins on the farm. Creating a protocol for farm food safety will make sanitation a habit 

Traceability 

Many retailers are now engaging third party inspectors and requiring lot numbers on boxes of produce. They want to make sure the produce in their produce section can be traced to a specific grower. If you are an organic farmer, you are already using lot numbers. If not, the process involves a number of steps but can be replicated every year. 

  1. Divide your fields into growing areas – you already do this if you’re rotating crops. Just give each growing area a number (such as 01,02,03…)
  2. Keep a record of picking/packing date for each bushel or container size you use (May 12,2021 becomes 051221) 
  3. Add lot numbers in conspicuous place on the container leaving your farm. A completed lot number might be field number, then picking date (01051221= Field 1 picked/packed May 12, 2021) 
  4. Keep good records. 

A particular lot is separate from all other lots, which means all post-harvest activities are separate: picking, washing, and packing. The cleaning water and harvest bins have to be cleaned after every lot.  The whole purpose of lots is to isolate where any contaminants came from. If you keep good records and follow a protocol that emphasizes farm food safety, a potential produce recall will not affect your entire farm. 

There’s no way to guarantee your produce is 100% pathogen free but by being proactive during all phases of your production, you can greatly reduce the risk and maintain your farm profit. 

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