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There have been plenty of examples of mass produce recalls in the past few years. There have been some historic record-breaking outbreaks and trends. Eggs, beef, romaine, romaine, romaine… You get the jist of it.
But how do we prevent it from happening. Food passes through so many hands on their way from the farm to your kitchen. First you have the conditions at the farm. Then you have the workers and equipment that harvest the crop. After that most produce is sent to packaging plants and/or distributors. Then transported to grocers who also handle the food. So many steps and so many opportunities to become contaminated.
So what is the best way to keep our fruits and vegetables free from harmful bacteria such as E. coli? Like most things, you start from the beginning. In this case – the farm.
Now I know what you are thinking. What about all of those hands I just mentioned. Shouldn’t they do their part too? Of course. Though many contamination events occur from a farm source and is spread to other food products through those extra steps and hands.
If all farmers worked toward minimizing microbial food safety hazards, our food can be much safer. Each step in the process can work toward this safety goal.
This idea is broken down into 8 principles, that if followed will greatly reduce foodborne contamination at the source and consequently avoid costly and harmful foodborne illness.
Principle #1 – Prevention is Preferred Over Corrective Actions
What’s the old saying. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Old Ben Franklin had it right. Proactive measures to prevent a contamination even from occurring in the first place are much better than cleaning up a mess after it has happened.
Water testing practices – It might seem like a no-brainer, but if you put contaminated water on crops, the crops can become contaminated. But natural irrigation water is safe, right? Wrong! If recent events have told us something, it is that what happens upstream is very important. In the case of the E. coli plagued romaine farmers, the feedlots upstream contributed to pathogenic bacteria from feedlot runoff making its way into irrigation water used in the Yuma, Arizona growing region. Testing water prior to use for irrigation could have identified the contamination risk and the water would have been treated prior to use.
Pest control – Rats and mice are a constant battle at farms. The rate in which these vermin reproduce is astounding. A few stray farm mice can become a huge colony in a matter of months. These little beasts are a hardship on farms. Not only do they steal product, they track pathogenic bacteria across the production line. In the case of the Rose Acres Farms egg recall, rats tracked Salmonella from earlier steps in the production line to the areas where clean and washed eggs were being processed and stored. While pest control is a feat, it is a never-ending necessity to prevent product contamination and a costly recall.
Principle #2 – Everybody Does Their Part and Control What They Can
Each step of the way, each hand that touches the product has a responsibility to control what they can. A vendor can select clean producers, but if they drop the ball themselves all that research will be for naught. Good agricultural and management processes are a healthy way to keep the good product moving forward in a safe manner.
Principle #3 – The Problem is with the Poop
The most common source of contamination of fresh produce is… You guessed it. Poop. Not just animal poop though. Produce can be contaminated with people poop too.
The crops should be strategically placed in an area that minimizes fecal contamination from neighboring ranches and feedlots as well as wildlife that might make its way through. Some farmers have problems with wild hogs or deer. Even rabbits that might deposit their contaminated poop as they nibble on the profits.
It isn’t just animal poop that causes the problem though. Unsanitary practices can lead to human fecal contamination. When you hear Hepatitis A contamination in food products it clearly came from a human. Handwashing practices and a hygiene control plan are important in any food processing, manufacturing, and distribution facility.
Principle #4 – Choose Your Water Wisely
This goes back to Principle #1. It all comes back to prevention. Minimizing microbial contamination from a water source is one of the best good agricultural practices. Choose the source and evaluate water quality for watering crops.
Principle #5 – Compost Carefully
Animal manure makes a rich compost for organic farmers that do not use commercial or synthetic fertilizers. This type of fertilizer is loaded with appropriate nutrients to make healthy crops, but there are risks. It is poop after all. Remember Principle #3?
Animal manure fertilizer should be monitored closely for potential microbial contamination. It is very much a “benefits must outweigh the risks” kind of situation. Heat treating or allowing the manure compost to heat treat itself is one way to manage microbial growth. Testing for these harmful pathogens is preferred. Personally, I love earthworm poop from a local farm for my herb garden.
Principle #6 – Hand Washing Avoids a Germ Hand Off
Hygiene and sanitation practices in production, harvesting, sorting, packing and transportation are critical to avoid contamination. Production and distribution facilities should be cleaned at regular intervals and hygiene plans for worker hand washing helps prevent the human component of contamination.
Principle #7 – Follow the Rules
Rules are in place for a reason. Sometimes they are inconvenient, but they are there for a reason. Local, State, and Federal laws and regulations and standards were put together to protect the general public. If you are compliant, chances are you have a much lower risk of contamination issue and subsequent costly recall.
Principle #8 – Accountability is Key
“Qualified personnel and effective monitoring” are key aspects of ensuring good agricultural processes. Both aspects are key to accountability. An in-house compliance officer that has the best interest of the customer in mind is very important. This person should be unbiased and looking for deficiencies to ensure a quality product leaves their hands safely.
By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)