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Fresh Produce Food Safety and Food Safety Training for Specialty Crop Growers

Fresh Produce Food Safety

Another food illness outbreak linked to fresh vegetables has made the headlines. The pathogen E. coli 0157:H7 caused 24 illnesses and two deaths in the United States and Canada. Canadian health officials have declared the outbreak over, and have placed the blame on romaine lettuce. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has not been able to lock down a definite source for the US E. coli cases as of the CDC's January 10 media statement. The investigation is ongoing. {update: as of January 25 the CDC declared the outbreak over)

One thing the CDC does indicate in their media statement is the source of this outbreak is likely leafy greens. Is it safe to return to the salad bar? If we examine what type of produce carries the highest number of foodborne illness outbreaks from 2000 to 2011, leafy greens are one of the top reported cases, second only to sprouts. However, contamination can happen to any food product.

What pathogens are common causes of foodborne illness in produce? Salmonella is the most common followed by E. coli. Though many may experience only minor symptoms, such as diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting, others may have more severe symptoms that result in hospitalization, long-term health impacts, and even death. The number of illnesses is likely much higher due to the underreporting of cases of foodborne illness.

What sets fresh produce apart from all the other foods? Let us compare chicken to lettuce.

  1. It is common knowledge the chicken has a high probability of contamination of pathogens that impact human health. On the other hand, lettuce is unlikely to be contaminated.
  2. Regarding processing interventions, or how is the product handled, up until sale is very good for chicken. Those handling raw chicken wear gloves, the butchering area is routinely cleaned, and the processed chicken is wrapped in plastic. Lettuce is stocked in open-air containers and placed on the shelf where anyone can come by pick up the lettuce look it over and put it back.
  3. Consumer/retailer interventions are excellent when it comes to raw chicken. In addition to specific cooking instructions on the label, many grocers have information near meat counters indicating proper cooking temperatures. Not many consumers know you should always wash produce before eating it.
  4. Fresh greens like lettuce are rising in popularity. People realize there's more to lettuce than iceberg. Higher consumption will lead to higher incidences of foodborne illness.
  5. And nobody eats raw chicken on purpose. Lettuce is nearly always eaten raw.

Even the vegetables grown in home gardens can carry human pathogens. So what can you do to keep your produce safe?

  • Clean hands are of utmost importance! Wash your hands before harvesting, handling and preparing fresh produce.
  • Don't use fresh manures as soil amendments in your garden.
  • Watch for cross-contamination. Don't use the same bucket for hauling scraps or manure to the compost pile and then scoop some finished compost in the same bucket to spread on your spinach. Same principles go for in the kitchen.
  • Get your water source tested. Those using surface water for irrigation are at higher risk.
  • Exclude wildlife and domestic animals from the garden as they can carry human pathogens.
  • Wash your produce. Even those bags of lettuce that say washed and ready to eat.
Food Safety Training for Specialty Crop Growers

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) sets forth new rules regarding food safety for commercial fruit and vegetable growers. The FSMA Produce Safety Rule requirement outlined in § 112.22(c) requires "at least one supervisor or responsible party for your farm must have successfully completed food safety training at least equivalent to that received under standardized curriculum recognized as adequate by the Food and Drug Administration."

Compliance dates for this requirement are based on the total amount of food sales for your farm, over a three-year period:

  1. Exempt farms – Farms that have an average annual value of produce sold during the previous three-year period less than $25,000 are excluded. However, farms must keep documentation to support the exemption.
  2. Very small business – Businesses with an average annual monetary value of produce sold during the previous three-year period of no more than $250,000 must complete training by Jan. 26, 2020.
  3. Small business – Businesses with an average annual monetary value of produce sold during the previous three-year period of no more than $500,000, and is not a very small business must complete training by Jan. 26, 2019.
  4. Other – Those with an average annual monetary value of produce sold during the previous three-year period over $500,000 must complete training by Jan. 26, 2018.
If you are a grower in the Central Illinois region and are interested in the FSMA required training, please contact me at or 309-837-3939. University of Illinois Extension anticipates offering regional training late 2018.

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