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Safe food begins at ground level
Safe food begins at ground level Did you know that in the last thirteen years there have been more cases of food-borne illness attributed to produce—both domestic and imported—than for seafood, poultry, beef or eggs?

It is true that the official list of ‘Potentially Hazardous Foods” identified by food safety experts includes foods that are low in acid, high in water content, and a source of protein and/or starch. Poultry, meat, fish, eggs, milk, and products made from these ingredients are on this list as well as cooked cereals (rice, oatmeal, and macaroni), cooked potatoes or starchy vegetables, and soy products such as tofu. The only “fresh” produce that appears on the list is fresh melon—one of only a few “low acid” fruits.

So why, if they are not “potentially hazardous,” are fresh fruits and vegetables the source of so many cases of food-borne illness? These foods are usually eaten raw, without a cooking process that kills many microorganisms, which cause food-borne illness. In addition, fresh produce is grown, harvested and sometimes packed in a risky environment—nature! The growing environment is just full of all kinds of microorganisms—bacteria, viruses, and parasites—that can make people sick. You are probably most familiar with E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. You may not have heard about Cyclospora, Cryptosporidium, or Campylobacter. They can all be found in the soil, in untreated water, or even on the unwashed hands of the gardener!

Government agencies do not inspect or monitor produce farmers for safe food handling. While they do provide guidance (Good Agricultural Practices), these are voluntary. Luckily, many grocery stores and produce distributors are requiring that the farmers they do business with show proof that they follow a food safety plan or use GAPs.

The home gardener grows fruits and vegetables in much the same natural environment as the commercial farmer. So, what are some Good Agricultural Practices that you can follow to reduce your risk of illness from the produce you grow?

Be mindful of the water you use
Whenever water meets fresh produce, there is the potential for contamination. Do you use well water, rain runoff? Do you carry water from a stream or pond to your garden? The safest water source is potable or drinkable water from a municipal system or well that is tested at least annually for bacteria and other contaminants. When using pond or stored rainwater, be sure to apply the water to the base of the plant, trying as much as possible to keep water from edible parts of the plant. As harvest time approaches, it is best to use the safest water source available to you.

When using pond or stored rainwater, be sure to apply the water to the base of the plant, trying as much as possible to keep water from edible parts of the plant.
Use of manure
Fresh manure (as well as dog droppings, deer droppings, cat poop, etc.) can be a source of E. coli, Salmonella and other bacteria, parasites, or viruses. Keep pets and—as much as possible—wildlife out of the garden. Use aged or composted manure or a compost pile that is managed by regular turning to minimize presence of pathogens.

The human element
This part is as simple as washing hands before harvest, not harvesting or working in the garden if you are sick, using safe food handling practices when harvesting, cleaning, and storing produce.

Sanitation in the garden and during harvest
Use clean harvest containers. Do not bring garden dirt into the kitchen if you can avoid it. Rinse warm produce with warm water—not cold. When warm produce is cleaned with cold water, as the vegetable or fruit cools, it can actually “suck” in dirt and bacteria through the calyx or root end. While it is most tempting to eat fresh produce right from the garden, it is best to wash off “nature” before taking a bite! Once the bounty of your garden reaches your kitchen, you are ready to enjoy the fruits—or vegetables—of your labor. Think “food safety” as you prepare the harvest for eating or storage. Wipe off any remaining field dirt into the sink and store produce in the refrigerator (at 38 - 40F.) It is best to wash fresh produce just before eating to minimize rot and molding. A few fruits and vegetables are best stored at room temperature, including tomatoes, potatoes, melon, and most tree fruits. Once cut, however all fruit and vegetables should be stored in the refrigerator.

If you plan to can or freeze your harvest, be sure to use methods recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Find this information for canning, freezing, or dehydration at The National Center for Home Food Preservation, http://www.uga.edu/nchfp. When preparing fresh produce for your meal, start by cleaning all work surfaces with hot, soapy water, rinsing with clean water. Use clean cutting boards, clean knives and other utensils, and clean hands. It is best to prepare fruits and vegetables first to avoid cross-contamination with raw meat, fish, eggs, or poultry. Cross-contamination happens when the bacteria or other harmful microorganisms from raw animal products contaminates fresh, ready to eat produce. This contamination can happen if you do not wash utensils or cutting surfaces well before using it for each different food you are preparing. It is actually best to reserve one cutting board for raw animal foods to minimize cross-contamination risk.

As soon as your salad or fresh produce is prepared, return it to the refrigerator until it is time to serve or cook. Any leftovers should be promptly refrigerated and used within three or four days.

For more information on safe food handling, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu.

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"Safe food begins at ground level"
   authored by:
Diane, a registered dietitian, is a food safety educator with the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System. She works in the area of food safety, targeting issues that affect the food system from the farm of the table. Her experiences g...

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