The best approach to reducing incidences of foodborne illnesses in U.S. produce is prevention.

And frequent hand washing may be one of the most important preventive steps a produce facility manager or a grower can encourage employees to take to reduce risks.

“Prevention is the key,” said Patrick Hiller, Texas AgriLife Extension, delivering a talk prepared by Extension vegetable specialist Joe Masabni, who was unable to attend the recent Texas Plant Protection Association annual conference in College Station.

Masabni’s remarks indicated that recent foodborne illness outbreaks focused more attention on the produce industry, resulting in recent legislation to address the issue.

GAPS

Good Agricultural Practices (GAPS) are being adopted by the industry to reduce potential for contaminants infecting produce and causing illness for consumers and workers.

From 1998 through 2008, 72 outbreaks involving contaminated produce were reported. Crops involved included lettuce, tomatoes, green onions and cantaloupes.

Contamination comes from three areas—chemical, physical and pathogens. “Pathogens are the most common contaminant,” he said.

Chemical contamination includes lubricants, cleaners, sanitizers, coating and pest control products. Physical contaminants include glass, wool, stones, insulation, plant parts and other foreign materials.

“Microbial contaminants are the most common cause of foodborne diseases,” Masabni said. ‘Most are present in the field.”

E-coli, Salmonella, Shigella and Listeria are all possible agents of foodborne illnesses.

“There are more than 200 different types of E-coli,” Masabni said, “and only a few of those affect humans.”