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Early summer food safety check in - do you have what you need for a safe harvest?

Annalisa Hultberg, food safety educator

Early summer is a good time to think through your food safety procedures to ensure you have safe, quality product this growing season and a packshed that is clean and organized. Are there things that didn't work well last year that you would like to improve?  Did you learn something this past winter from a training or a fellow farmer that you would like to integrate into your systems this year?  Here is a checklist to revisit as you prepare for the season to ensure your fruits and vegetables are safe and healthful for your customers.   

1. Deep clean the packshed 

It is a good idea to do a deep clean of your packshed in the early season. 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.

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

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 used for washing and sorting produce should be cleaned and sanitized daily when in use. Totes, drains, and other surfaces that touch food should be cleaned on a schedule that makes sense to you throughout the season. 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.

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

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 biolfim, 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 biofim 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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