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Early summer food safety tips for the packshed

Annalisa Hultberg, food safety educator

As you are busy planting and beginning early harvests, it is a good time to think through your food safety procedures to ensure you have safe, quality product this growing season. Here is a checklist for the early season to-dos to prepare your packing and washing areas for the season.

1. Deep clean the packshed 

It is a good idea to do a deep clean of your packing area and all equipment in the early season. Disassemble postharvest washing equipment as possible, scrub surfaces with soap and water, and then apply a sanitizer like a bleach solution, focusing on the areas that will touch the produce directly. Don't forget walls, ceilings, coolers, floor drains, the outside and inside of equipment, and corners and storage areas to get rid of filth from the winter.  

For more information on making a sanitizing solution for surfaces, see this webpage. Common sanitizers are bleach or a PAA - based sanitizer like Sanidate 5.0. You can get Sanidate from Biosafe systems, and they have local reps to help you set up a system to use the sanitizer on your farm.

One trick is to use a hose end sprayer with Sanidate or another sanitizer to make spraying down big surfaces and a large number of totes more efficient. 

Read a blog post here on using this system.

2. Establish cleaning and sanitizing protocols and procedures for the season

After a spring clean, how often will you clean during the season? Use your food safety plan to develop a schedule for cleaning and sanitizing your equipment for the rest of the season, and talk about it with your employees. 

How often do you need to clean the surfaces in your packshed? That depends on the use. Harvest tools, tables and sinks, brushwashers and other items used for washing and sorting produce should be cleaned and sanitized daily when in use. Floors, drains, coolers and other surfaces can cleaned less frequently, but on a schedule that makes sense to you throughout the season to keep them clean. An added benefit - by sanitizing your equipment regularly you will reduce the spread of plant diseases on your farm as well, improving product shelf life.

The spray table that they are using to dry greens is an example of a food contact surface. This should be washed, rinsed and sanitized each day it is in use.

Make a plan to clean floors and floor drains regularly. Squeegee standing water at the end of each day. Scrub and sanitize drains regularly to reduce the potential for dangerous bacteria like Listeria monocytogenes, which can can serious illness if ingested, to build up in these cold, wet environments and get onto your equipment.

Here are surfaces that should be cleaned and sanitized on a schedule. 

  • Harvest tools 
  • Packshed equipment like brush washers and barrel washers
  • Sinks and sink drains
  • Totes and buckets used for harvest and storage
  • Tables and other surfaces used for sorting and packing
  • Floor drains

Remember that WET surfaces allow biofilms and bacteria to grow, where they can become a source of contamination for your produce.  Do your best to clean your equipment like brush washers with soap and water, spray with a sanitizer, and then let the equipment dry between uses. Replace the sponges on brushwashers once a year if possible, as they are nearly impossible to clean well and rarely fully dry. 

Use the early season to set up and clean the packshed. Scrub equipment like brush washers with detergent and water, and then spray with a sanitizer like a bleach solution.

3. Look carefully at your packshed with an eye for areas of special concern (the stuff that stays wet and is difficult to clean)

Think like a food safety sleuth. For example, look at this drain in a three compartment sink. When the drain is closed and the bay is filled with water, the reservoir below the drain plate is also filled with water. The wash water for the greens will be mingled with whatever is on that drain, which might include pathogenic bacteria that can sicken your customers. This drain had a layer of biofilm, or the slime that you can feel with your finger. Biofilms will trap bacteria, where it can slough off and get into the water that you use to wash your produce. 

To prevent this biofilm from taking hold, make sure that it is someone's job to use a small - headed brush to scrub spots like this at least weekly during the season. This will prevent the buildup of bacteria and biofilms in the drain and keep your produce fresher and cleaner.  Set up that system now, so that you don't need to think about it in July.

            Drains are places where bacteria such as Listeria can grow, 
where it becomes a source of contamination to your fresh produce. Wash and sanitize them regularly.

4. Do you have enough handwashing stations?

Where are your handwashing areas? You should have one by each bathroom or Port a Potty, in the packing area, and in the field or harvest area. Handwashing is the most important thing you can do to make sure your produce will not sicken your customers, and that your farm's produce will not be involved in a foodborne illness related recall. Washing hands prevents fecal contamination from spreading around the farm via your workers hands.

Make handwashing stands easy to access and fully stocked. They will need to have paper towels, flowing potable water, soap, and a way to catch the water. 

Here is a short video and factsheet about building a low cost handwashing stand for your farm.

Watch this video on hand sanitizer VS handwashing. It is a good visual representation of why sanitizer cannot replace handwashing.

5. How will you train your workers, and then retrain?

The best advice I have heard a farmer say about food safety is "No shame, retrain." 

Start your season with an all employee check in and refresher about your food safety policies, like not working when ill, washing hands, coming to work in clean clothes, changing or cleaning boots after animal-related chores, harvest protocols, cleaning and sanitizing routines,  and how to wash produce. 

If and when some systems start to slip during the season, retrain and readdress. If employees seem to be not washing hands before starting work, have a short check in to remind them of the farm's policies. Training is one of the most important aspects of having good food safety and protecting your farm and the customers. 

Michigan State University has a great new texting service you can sign up for that will send you text reminders about training topics throughout the year. You can get the text and messages in English or Spanish.  Sign up and learn more here. 

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