Donations from local fruit and vegetable growers are important to food pantries. Food pantry clients want in-season produce, and this type of food provides nutritional benefits to them. Because food safety begins at the farm level, food pantry workers may ask questions to ensure donated foods have a low food safety risk. A new publication by ISU Extension and Outreach provides information to growers about safe on-farm food practices and information to food pantry workers about how to keep donated produce safe.
Rain continues to fall in excessive amounts across the state. After some severe flooding in northeast Iowa, I have been receiving questions about flooded gardens and vegetable fields.
If you are selling product to customers, you have a responsibility to minimize its risk to others. Never sell produce from a flood-damaged garden at a farm market or farm stand until you are sure that all contamination has been removed from the garden, usually a period of at least one month after the last incidence of flooding.
Another way to think about this, is to assume that the floodwater contained manure and refer to the GAPs related to using untreated manure:
- Incorporate untreated manure into soil prior to planting (to induce microbial competition).
- Do not apply untreated manure or leachate from manure to produce fields during the growing season prior to harvest.
- Maximize the time between application of manure and harvest of produce (at least 120 days).
- Do not use untreated manure where the above GAPs are not possible, such as for fresh produce harvested throughout most of the year.
If a production field is identified as unsalable, you may still have some options for harvest out of that field for personal use. Here are some publications to review. The text from the WI publication is also posted below.
—Garden Produce in Floods, ISU Extension
—Safely Using Produce from Flooded Gardens, U of Wisconsin Extension
After flooding occurs, gardeners often raise questions about the safety of consuming produce from gardens that were under water for a day or two. How concerned gardeners have to be about using garden produce after a flood depends, to a large degree, on how “clean” the flood water was or whether it was likely to have been contaminated with sewage, river or creek water, farm run-off, or industrial pollutants. The most conservative answer — one that eliminates any and all risks — is that gardeners should discard all produce that was touched by flood water. However, if flooding occurs early, there will typically be weeks left in the growing season, and gardeners will likely wish to salvage some crops. The following are tips for considering what can be salvaged and what must be discarded from a flooded garden.
Produce can be cooked to ensure safety. This is the best choice if anything that was touched by flood water will be served to those most at risk for serious consequences from microbial food-borne illnesses: young children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. Note that cooking will not eliminate the risk posed by industrial pollutants.
Discard all produce that is normally consumed uncooked (raw), including all leafy vegetables such as lettuce or spinach, regardless of how mature the plants are. It is not possible to clean these crops as they have many ridges and crevices that could contain contaminated silt or bacteria. All soft fruits that are ready to harvest, such as strawberries or raspberries, should also be discarded unless they can be cooked; they too are impossible to thoroughly clean and cannot be safely consumed raw.
Other produce may be salvaged depending on the crop and how far along it is in the growing season. In general, any produce where the edible part was directly touched by flood water presents a potential risk to health if consumed. This includes produce that was submerged or splashed by flood water. The ability to salvage crops that will be eaten raw with minimal risk depends on the source of the flood water, time to harvest, and whether potential contamination will have been internalized into the plant tissue. One starting point for evaluating the safety of produce from flooded gardens is the National Organic Program (NOP) guidance to farmers wishing to harvest produce from soil fertilized with non-composted manure. The NOP requires a 90-day period before harvesting edible material from plants grown in soil fertilized with non-composted manure, but where the manure has not come in contact with the edible material. NOP standards require a 120-day period before harvest of edible plant material that had direct contact with non-composted manure. Research suggests that contamination from non-composted manure should present a more significant health risk than contamination from flood waters.
Early season crops that are to be harvested within a few weeks after a flood, and that remain above flood waters should be safe to eat if cooked or peeled. Examine any produce carefully before harvest. If it is soft, cracked, bruised, or has open fissures where contamination might have entered, throw it out. Intact produce can be eaten, but should be rinsed with clear tap water (DO NOT use soap) followed by a brief soak (2 minutes) in a weak chlorine solution of two tablespoons bleach in a gallon of water. Finally, rinse the produce in cool, clean tap water. Peel or cook these items thoroughly before eating. Take care to prevent cross contamination in the kitchen. Change the bleach solution if the water is no longer clean.
Plants where fruits have set (tomatoes) or where flowers are evident (broccoli/cauliflower) at the time of flooding present an undefined risk. Before consuming these crops raw, consider the source of the flood water, the time since contamination, and the health of the tissue. Always discard any tissue that is bruised, cracked or otherwise blemished. Washing fresh produce with clear water, followed by a brief soak in a dilute bleach solution (see above) and then rinsing before eating or peeling will help to reduce any remaining risk.
Underground vegetables such as beets, carrots and potatoes that are still early in their growth (at least four to eight weeks from harvest) should be safe if allowed to grow to maturity. Root crops (i.e. new potatoes) that will be consumed within a month after flooding should be washed, rinsed and sanitized as directed above before cooking thoroughly. Note that beets may be peeled after cooking, if desired.
Melons and other fruits that will be eaten raw should not be consumed. Recent food-borne illness outbreaks linked to melons suggest that these low-acid fruits may not be safe even if surface-sanitized.
Late-season vegetables that result from flowers produced on growth that develops after flood waters subside should be safe. This group of vegetables includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, cucumbers, and other similar vegetables. To increase safety, cook these vegetables thoroughly, or at least wash them well and peel them, if possible, before eating.
Flood-damaged garden produce that is otherwise unfit for eating should not be canned or otherwise preserved. Garden produce that would be safe to consume after washing, sanitizing and cooking (see above) may be safely canned. Because the low temperature of home dehydrators does not destroy high numbers of bacteria, do not attempt to dehydrate produce from flooded gardens.
Source: Safely Using Produce from Flooded Gardens, Barbara Ingham and Steve Ingham, UW-Food Science, 3/28/2009.
The U-Pick season is quickly approaching. Customers can carry and spread microbial pathogens like any other farm worker. It is important to remember that all customers entering the U-pick field need to be aware and follow good hygiene practices, too.
Encouraging customers to wash their hands prior to and after picking sends a positive message about farm stewardship and reduces microbial risks. Providing clean, accessible restrooms and handwashing facilities are essential, along with posting signs encouraging visitors to use these facilities. Post signs on your property that remind customers to wash their hands before entering U-pick fields and locations of restroom facilities.
Click here for a guide to help you assess food safety practices on your farm.
U-Pick Food Safety Considerations:
- Hand washing
- Restroom locations
- Not harvesting while sick with foodborne illness
- No animals in the fields
Q: What sanitizers and disinfectants can I use on my certified organic vegetable farm?
A: The USDA has established a National Organic Program (NOP) Rule to set and enforce uniform standards for both producing and handling agricultural and processed food products labeled as organic. Chemicals used in organic postharvest operations must comply with the NOP rules. Most synthetic inputs are prohibited; those that are allowed may be used only with restrictions.
Adequate sanitation and disinfection during postharvest processes are vital components of a postharvest management plan. As food safety regulations become increasingly important to the sales and marketing of crops, the establishment of proper measures to ensure the elimination of food-borne pathogens is essential. In addition to mitigating potential food-borne illness, proper sanitation during postharvest handling can also minimize the occurrence of postharvest disease and decay. As is the case during the production stage of the crop, all products used during the postharvest period must adhere to NOP regulations.
Click here for more information on which products are approved for use in organic operations.
I’ve received a few questions about aquaponics and food safety. Specifically can I get GAP certification while growing my produce with aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a food production system that uses nutrient-rich water from fish culture to irrigate and fertilize plants. After the plants have absorbed the nutrients, the water is recirculated to the fish rearing tanks. This combination of aquaculture and hydroponics recycles both water and nutrients, resulting in an efficient use of resources. However, when food plants are grown in the presence of fish culture effluent, food safety considerations become very important.
Here are some documents to help with developing food safety plans from the University of Hawaii.
North Carolina State Extension has released some new EXCELLENT guides for community gardens. Below are the links..
Partners in NC have developed an guidance document specifically addressing the food safety issue of community gardens. There’s also a webinar and other documents that may be helpful
Partners at NC State (same ones that helped with the second document) have done a more detailed how to guide
The National Good Food Network has released a new guide for on-farm food safety. Written from one farmer to another, this ten-page booklet is an introduction to food safety, plus tools, resources and first steps. The information in this publication is very applicable to Iowa and reflects my experiences assisting Iowa farmers with their GAP certification needs.
Here are their 10 Steps to Food Safety Certification (Download the full booklet here)
1. Take a self-assessment. Get a sense of where you are now, and it will take to get on the right track for food safety certification.
2. Do some reading, study, and self-education. Take advantage of the resources listed throughout the document.
3. Attend a GAP training. Find out who in your community offers workshops or resources and focus on what’s most appropriate and feasible for you.
4. Make a formal management commitment to food safety. Remember that certification is an ongoing process, but one you can start and make a manageable commitment to today.
5. Develop a food safety plan for the farm as it should be. Start with a concrete plan for now and for the future.
6. Implement the easiest and most accessible practices. Tackle the “low hanging fruit” and remember that you’re probably already engaging in some food safety best practices.
7. Reach out to your buyers and customers. Communication with your customers about your practices, plans and commitment.
8. Identify and build cooperative relationships that can help implement GAP. Look for partnerships and take advantage of the potential for sharing resources.
9. Continue improving until you’re ready for an external audit. Keep up the good work, and lower audit costs by being prepared.
10. Seek out resources and support as needed. The Wallace Center’s Nation Good Food Network Food Safety Portal offers news, updates and resources at http://ngfn.org/food-safety.
Be sure to sign up for email updates to this blog to remain updated on GAP training and support for Iowa farmers.
Teresa Wiemerslage, Regional Program Coordinator
ISU Extension – Northeast Iowa
Industry and academic participants have contributed to a new publication titled Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Production, Harvest, Post-Harvest, and Processing Unit Operations of Fresh Culinary Herbs. Best Practices were developed to address identified potential food safety issues. The document contains a list of reference documents that offer detailed background information regarding how to develop food safety programs. The 186-page PDF file is available online.