Focus on the Three P’s of Fresh Produce Safety
1. Producing Fresh Produce
From planting to consumption, there are many steps in the process of growing, harvesting, packing and distributing where microbial pathogens can enter into the food chain. By identifying the microbial hazards and applying Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), growers can take necessary steps toward reducing the risk of microbial contamination in fresh produce. The “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables” outlines eight basic principles that will prepare growers to recognize and address the areas where the risk of microbial contamination is the greatest. The North Carolina fresh produce safety initiative is focused on developing resources to help producers gain knowledge of fresh produce safety practices and comply with current commodity-specific guidelines. Educate yourself! More information can be found on this Web site. Find it in the Good Agricultural Practices and Commodity-Specific Guidance sections.
Things you can do:
- Attend a Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) training workshop – Start by educating yourself. Contact your local N.C. Cooperative Extension agent for more information.
- Perform a self assessment – Start looking at your operation for areas of potential microbial contamination.
- Test your water source – Water is one of the primary vectors for potential contaminants on the farm. Currently, there is a water analysis cost share program available through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
2. Preventing Cross-Contamination
Cross-contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables can occur throughout the fresh produce supply chain when produce is contaminated from another source. There are three main ways that cross-contamination can occur: produce to produce, equipment/containers to produce and people to produce. Produce commonly comes in contact with potential sources of pathogenic microorganisms such as soil, organic fertilizers, water, workers, harvesting containers and equipment.
Understanding the environment where these pathogens normally live and thrive is an essential first step. The next step is being aware of the conditions that promote microbial growth and the conditions that reduce or eliminate microorganisms. The final step is to assess how all the activities on the farm are interrelated and might result in cross-contamination. Water is a prime example of the interrelated element that is present in numerous farming activities. Water can be a useful tool for reducing potential contamination; however, it may also serve as a source of contamination or cross-contamination. Water is used in every step of production from irrigation in the beginning to washing and perhaps cooling prior to shipment.
Things you can do:
- Map your farm operation with “critical area of risk” – Create a comprehensive map of your farm showing the fields in production with field designation numbers, acreage, crops, packing house facilities, landmarks that define the property, sanitary facilities, adjacent land use and water sources (including water pumps). Use arrows to indicate the flow of produce from the production area to the packing and transporting areas. Look for possible areas where contaminants (water, manure, workers) might enter the product flow areas and make a list of the areas where possible cross-contamination might occur.
- Visit FAQs to learn more about the most common food-borne pathogens including where they live, what symptoms they cause and how they’re transmitted.
3. Practicing Personal Health & Hygiene
In past investigations, the Food and Drug Administration found that poor personal hygiene and improper hand washing are among the most important causes of food-borne illnesses. It is important to ensure that all personnel comply with proper health and hygiene practices, including those not directly involved with production but who may be involved with on-farm practices that could lead to produce contamination. Problems associated with these outbreaks include poor personal hygiene, poor hand-washing, improper glove use, open sores and eating while on the job. It is essential to establish an educational program that trains employees on proper hand-washing procedures, use of sanitary facilities and the importance of good hygiene practices.
Human hands naturally carry good and bad bacteria. Bacteria can be transferred to many objects throughout the food supply chain, with fruits and vegetables offering a good medium for bacterial growth. More importantly, many of the fruits and vegetables are eaten fresh, without a “kill” step, like cooking, that other foods might undergo. Proper hand washing is an important first line of defense against harmful bacteria. Wash your hands!
Things you can do:
- Create a policy that outlines the proper procedures and techniques for hand-washing. Include plans to offer educational programs that will provide guidance for implementing the policy.
- Train all personnel on proper hand-washing techniques and procedures.
- Make sure all employees and visitors wash their hands with soap and running water before starting work, after breaks, after using the bathroom and after touching unsafe materials (tools, containers, machinery, human body parts).
Proper hand-washing procedure involves the following steps:
- Wet hands with potable water, apply soap and work up lather.
- Rub hands together for at least 20 seconds.
- Clean under the nails and between the fingers.
- Rinse under potable running water.
- Dry hands with a single-use towel.