"Food safety is a consumer right. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued food safety guidelines for fresh fruits and vegetables that can help us address this concern," said Frank Dainello, Extension vegetable specialist based in College Station. "There aren't any documented deaths in the United States due to pesticide contamination of fruits or vegetables, but every year there are 15 to 20 documented cases of fatal food-borne illnesses."
Dainello was one of 12 speakers addressing growers at the second Annual High Plains Vegetable Conference held on the campus of West Texas A&M University in Canyon Jan. 13.
"Even though most of those cases are traceable to contamination in restaurants or in the home, there are some things that growers can do to ensure the quality and safety of their product. What these good agricultural practices add up to is proper sanitation at all points in the production and distribution chain."
The first sanitary consideration for growers should be choosing a clean site for their crop, the specialist said. An ideal production site has no recent history of livestock use, is not close to an existing livestock operation and is not downstream or downslope from sites that house livestock.
"You should also avoid areas with a history of oil and gas production or processing, waste disposal, and land that is prone to flooding. It's also wise to avoid fields where manure was used at high rates in the recent past," Dainello said. "Another good tip is to keep all pets out of the field, whether they are yours or whether they belong to your workers. They have no place in the field."
Water is a major source of contaminants such as E. coli, salmonella and hepatitis A. Knowing the source and quality of any water adjacent to a production site and monitoring the quality of available irrigation water are other ways to keep fields and produce sanitary, he added.
"Know the quality of your irrigation water. Test your wells, and take steps to prevent surface water runoff occurring in your fields. When it comes to spreading contaminants, an overhead irrigation system is more risky than furrow or drip irrigation because it puts water in direct contact with plants," Dainello said.
"If you plan on using manure fertilizer, make sure it is adequately composted. Consider using a lower-risk, inorganic/synthetic fertilizer instead of manure.
"After we choose a clean site and monitor our irrigation and fertilizer sources, we must provide sanitation training for all workers in the field. Workers who are injured or sick should not be allowed in the field. We must also provide and maintain clean restrooms and wash-up facilities, and post sanitation rules and guidelines in Spanish and English in common work areas."
Keeping harvest equipment and processing facilities clean at all times is another consideration.
"Make sure your harvest containers are clean and in good shape. Teach your workers to minimize soil contact with the bins and the produce. They should also avoid bruising or cutting the produce whenever possible," he said. "It is also a good idea to provide single-use towels, plenty of clean, potable water and disposable gloves for your workers.
"The same rules that apply to worker sanitation should be applied to customers of U-pick or pick-your-own operations."
Freshly harvested produce should be washed with potable water and then stored in a clean packing facility as soon as possible after harvest. Growers should also take steps to exclude rodents and birds from packing or storage areas, and from their clean, sanitized refrigerated delivery vehicles, the specialist said.
"Documentation is key in every step of the sanitation process. Document everything. From field history to worker sanitation and produce handling," Dainello said. "A growers’ guide entitled Food Safety Begins on the Farm outlines these good agricultural practices in detail. The printed guide is a collaborative effort of several universities and Cooperative Extension. It is available on the Internet at http://www.GAPs.cornell.edu."
The High Plains Vegetable Conference is a collaborative effort of Texas Cooperative Extension, West Texas A&M University and agribusiness. It routinely draws growers, shippers, packers, industry representatives, Extension specialists and researchers from five states.
Tim W. McAlavy is a writer for Texas A&M University.