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Food Safety and Produce

Food safety has become a hot topic in the produce industry. Advertising agencies and marketing firms have been pushing the branding angle with clients as a means to increase sales and capture a loyal customer base. We all have brands we’re attracted to for different reasons. For some, it’s just what we grew up with. Whether we’re looking to save a few pennies or for a quality product, brand recognition is working on us, whether we realize it or not. Food safety is a major component of branding in the fresh fruit and vegetable sector. Growers, packers, shippers, and retailers are continually taking measures to ensure their products are free of potential hazards that can undermine their integrity. Businesses associated with foodborne illness outbreaks suffer loss of reputation, lost sales, loss of consumer confidence, negative media exposure, lawsuits, increased insurance premiums, and so on. In 2009, $39 billion of loss was attributed to produce-related illnesses. It is clearly in the industry’s best interest to maintain systems and practices to ensure the safety of its products.

There has recently been a push in the industry towards factory-cut, pre-packaged produce as a means of reducing the risks of foodborne illnesses associated with fresh fruits and vegetables. And, while there are benefits associated with pre-packaged produce in managing an outbreak, I am not convinced this course promotes safety. Almost all of the foodborne outbreaks in the last five years associated with retail produce have been controlled-atmosphere, factory-cut, pre-packaged goods. Personally, I don’t feel the quality of these products is as high as their unpackaged counterparts, and that the additional labor and environmental impact of packaging is just not necessary. This is my opinion. If the convenience encourages consumers to make healthier choices, maybe it’s worth it. My fear is that the cost of compliance to new regulations may pinch small-scale producers out of the market. Time will tell!

Fresh produce is fairly unique in that it can come from multiple sources and origins depending on the seasons, and is often eaten raw. It is commonly sold in an open-market atmosphere, sometimes refrigerated, sometime not, and historically, more often than not, has not been packaged. There are numerous opportunities for contamination from farm to fork. Let’s take a look at how foods can become contaminated, some common pathogens associated with fresh produce, and how we can help ensure our food is safe.

Most produce is grown on a (1) farm, packed in a (2) warehouse, shipped to a (3) distributor, sold to a (4) retailer, where it is then purchased by the (5) consumer. So here, we have five points for contamination. At the Co-op, we have the ability to purchase directly from farms during our local season, and thus we are able to eliminate two possible points for hazards to be introduced. At each of these points, there are three potential categories of hazards to food safety: biological, chemical, and physical.

Biological pathogens represent the greatest threat to food safety, and are implicated in the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks. They include viruses, bacteria, molds, parasites, andnaturally occurring toxins. Examples include: e coli, Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Staphylococcus, and Norovirus.
Chemical hazards can include cleaning agents, lubricants, disinfectants, polishes, and toxic metals that can leach into foods. While this is not as likely to occur with fresh produce as with prepared foods, there are potentials for contamination.

Physical hazards refer to foreign objects in your produce. While it is highly unlikely, it does happen. Root vegetables have been known to incorporate small stones while maturing in the ground. Staples may find their way into leafy greens in the packing shed.

As stated earlier, biological pathogens represent the greatest threat to food safety. We live in a microbial world, where opportunities for contamination are abundant during a product’s life. Most of the microbes representing a threat to fresh produce are found in the intestines and fecal matter of animals and humans. In the field, contamination can occur when an irrigation supply becomes tainted. Manure can leach into reservoirs, lakes, and streams. Birds can contaminate product in the field, which then contaminates water in the wash bins. Spores found in the soil can also contaminate fresh produce. Melons, squash, cucumbers and other vegetables that naturally grow on the ground can come into contact with these spores, and if not handled properly, can become contaminated.

Often, it takes many of these microbes to make us sick. How produce is handled post harvest is a major control point in ensuring the safety of the product. Microbes need warmth, moisture, and nutrients to multiply. Under ideal conditions, one bacterium that multiplies itself every half-hour will produce millions of offspring in just twelve hours. Proper post-harvest handling helps to eliminate these opportunities for microbes to multiply to levels that present a threat to consumers.
Growers, shippers, packers, and retailers—including the Co-op—use food safety management systems to help ensure the products they offer are safe. They follow state and federal regulatory guidelines and educate themselves and their employees on proper food-handling practices. We analyze where products risk contamination, define these as control points, and implement systems and practices to ensure safety. These are points we can control.

I’ve done a bit of reading and research over the years and will summarize what I’ve found most commonly touted as important steps toward food safety.

Luckily for us, fresh fruits and vegetable are implicated in less than 20% of all foodborne-related outbreaks and illnesses. The bad news is that next to restaurants and food served at special events (fairs, festivals, potlucks), it is the consumer’s poor food-handling practices that make them sick: fresh produce is stored improperly, cross-contaminated, or not washed properly. Prepared foods left out at room temperature provide ideal growing conditions for pathogens. Rice, beans, grains, and soy proteins all represent high-risk foods when not handled properly. More often than not, our mishandling of these products is what makes us sick, not the vegetables incorporated into the dish. The first thing we need to do to ensure safety is educate ourselves on proper food storage, preparation, and handling.

Two of the simplest things we can do are to wash our hands and our produce. Poor hygiene practices spread viruses to fresh fruits and vegetables. Again, most produce is sold in an open-market style environment. Anyone can come in to the Co-op’s Produce aisle and pick up a cucumber, put it back and go for a pepper, decide that’s not the one they want, and touch five more before finding the one they want before heading over to the salad bins and... who knows what might be on this person’s hands or what might be ailing them.

Additionally, consumers of certified organic produce often consider it “safe” because it hasn’t been sprayed with poisonous pesticides and herbicides, so they don’t feel the need to wash it. Always, always, always wash your produce! If you need to, use the sink in the bulk aisle or ask one of us to wash an apple or some grapes for your ride to work or your kids to munch on. Organic farmers are required to follow strict rules, including using potable water for post-harvest washing. This does not prevent or eliminate the risk of contamination! Additionally, if you haven’t just cleaned your sink, don’t throw your produce directly into it: your kitchen sink is often the dirtiest place in your house and it can contain more harmful bacteria than your toilet! Use a clean colander, run it directly under the water, or use a clean container; don’t throw produce in a dirty sink.

Ensuring produce is safe requires a little work, however, it is not at all complicated. A good understanding of proper-handling practices and good hygiene go a long way in protecting the integrity of our products. At the Co-op, we train staff on systems and procedures to ensure we protect the integrity of our products. We work with certified suppliers and farms who do their best to ensure the safety of their products. By shopping at the Co-op, you may be making the effort to eat healthy, nutritious food as a means of maintaining good health. Taking the time and making the effort to use good food-handling practices is the simplest component contributing to our good health.

Best of luck to all of you participating in the Eat Local Challenge! And if you’re not formally taking the Challenge, eat local anyway! It’s fresh, full of nutrients, delicious, and a great way to enjoy a meal with friends and family, and support a strong, healthy community!