Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices

Good Agricultural Practices/ Good Handling Practices

Assuring the safety of the products vendors sell at the farmers’ market begins long before food is available for purchase. It is essential that growers work to reduce exposure to contaminants and minimize the potential for bacterial growth during production, harvest and handling steps. Manure management, water source and usage, and farm worker health and hygiene are the three major factors that can contribute to the risk of produce contamination on the farm. By addressing these components before planting, during production, and throughout harvest and post-harvest handling, the risk of contamination can be minimized. Risk for contamination after the farm may occur in retail stores, restaurants, or the home. In addition, fruit and vegetables are often consumed raw and do not include a cooking step that would otherwise kill harmful pathogens.

Currently, Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) are not regulations but were developed by the FDA to provide recommendations and guidance to the fruit and vegetable industry to reduce microbial risks. Mandatory safety standards for produce appear to be on the horizon. Along with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) voluntary guidance documents, Congress has also introduced a number of bills with provisions that would direct the FDA to establish standards for the safe production of fruits and vegetables. As a result of the growing movement toward mandatory produce safety standards, GAPs audits are becoming increasingly important to all stakeholders in the industry.

The best approach to maintaining safe, wholesome foods is to be aware of potential risks and minimize the chance of internal or external contamination at every step from farm to fork. A single approach to food safety is unrealistic; therefore, key guiding principles have been outlined for prevention of contamination, cross contamination, and reduction of pathogen survival; up to consumer handling. Potential growing sites for fruit and vegetable crops need to be evaluated regarding land use history and previous manure applications. Produce fields should be separated from contact with livestock yards and pastures or water movements that may carry livestock waste to produce fields via runoff or drift. Upstream uses of surface and irrigation water should be assessed and tested for microbiological quality if questionable. Prior to planting, manure use must be evaluated to ensure proper and thorough composting, and timing of manure application and soil incorporation.

Side dressing crops with manure should be avoided or, if this practice is undertaken, only well-composted or well-aged manure should be applied. Cross contamination from livestock areas via farm equipment can be reduced by cleaning tractors prior to entering produce fields and keeping animals, including poultry, pets, and wildlife (as much as possible) from roaming in crop areas.

During production, irrigation methods and water quality can either contribute to or minimize contamination risk. Irrigation water, municipal water, well water and surface water all need to be tested for microbial water quality. Water tests need to be evaluated and water sources filtered or chemically treated if necessary.

Throughout production, harvesting and post-harvest-handling, farm worker health and hygiene must be supported via convenient, clean, and well-maintained toilet and hand washing facilities. Farm worker training should emphasize the relationship between food safety and personal hygiene. Farm workers who are sick should not be assigned to duties that require direct contact with produce.

Minimizing food safety risks during harvest and post-harvest-handling include assuring clean and sanitary storage facilities, packing containers, harvesting and packing machinery, transportation vehicles and in general all surfaces that come in contact with produce. Wash water quality must also be evaluated to minimize the spread of pathogens to the produce. Never use re-circulated water to wash produce because it can inoculate the product with pathogens removed from previously washed produce.

Food safety risks and strategies to minimize contamination exist from farm to table and at each stage responsible food safety practices need to be implemented. For farmer’s market vendors to truly be successful, food safety practices have to be utilized at all times.

Carolyn Benepe, MS student, and Pat Kendall, PhD, RD, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Colorado State University Extension.

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