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Harvesting and using fallen apples and other produce - can it be done safely?

Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator, food safety

Can you safely use apples and other crops that might fall to the ground before or during harvest? Is it safe to just wash off and then sell these crops? While it might be tempting to want to use the products so that they do not go to waste, produce that is dropped prior to or during harvest should not be distributed to the public for fresh eating, baking or in juice cider production due to the potential for the presence of patulin (in apples), and the risk of damage and internalized contamination in other produce.

What happens when produce is dropped?

When produce falls to the ground, damage such as cracks, bruises and other sometimes undetectable breaks in the surface of the produce skin or rind can occur. These cracks can cause the produce to be much more susceptible to infiltration during the washing step, such as with this cantaloupe pictured below. Dye was put into the water that the melon was submerged into.  You can see where the dye entered through cracks and bruises via water that infiltrated into the pulp of the melon. 

Infiltration happens when a crop is warmer than the water it is placed into (especially by more than 10 degrees). The pressure and temperature differential causes the water to be sucked into the cells of the produce. Any amount of contamination, such as bacteria that might be in a small amount of bird poop or soil that is in the water can then enter into the produce cells, where it cannot be removed with washing.

The best ways to avoid this is to not harvest produce that might be damaged, via dropping or other causes such as insect damage, and to be very careful when using water to cool produce. Make sure that the water is clean, as it might be internalized into the produce. Use a sanitizer approved for wash water (vinegar is not one of these sanitizers, and does not kill microbes in the water.)

Infiltration can also happen in tomatoes, apples and many other crops. The photo below shows the same concept happening with tomatoes. Dye in the water seeps into the stem end and any damaged area.

Photo Jovana Kovacevic and Joy Waite-Cusic at Oregon State University

Storage and quality issues

Beyond increased risk of infiltration, the produce that has fallen to the ground will also not last as long during storage. The produce might appear to be fresh when sold to the customer, but it might not last in their refrigerator or storage. The damaged produce will cause other pieces to also rot in storage, potentially ruining more produce. 

Dropped apples and patulin 

Patulin is a mycotoxin produced by molds like Penicillium, Aspergillus and Byssochlamys when apples or other fruits are injured. The toxin is heat-stable, meaning it is resistant to heating, even at pasteurization temperatures. You cannot see or smell or taste the toxin, so it is not possible to know if it is present without laboratory testing. Patulin has been shown to cause serious illness in animals and humans, especially to the nervous systems and might cause problems with blood flow, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms.

Because of the risk of the formation of patulin, it is recommended that dropped apples are not used for fresh eating, juicing, baking or canning. In addition to not using drops, use proper handling practices and gentle harvesting and handling to reduce stem injuries and the potential for patulin development. Proper holding temperatures have also been shown to reduce the development of the patulin toxin during storage. Significant research continues to be conducted around the world on how to control for this toxin and what storage temperatures, handling practices and other variables affect its growth.

Not using drops and following best practices for handling and storage temperatures can help reduce the potential for this toxin to spread via your apples.

Can I use apples that have fallen to the ground for making hard cider?

Yes, if the apples are going to a cider maker who will use a validated "kill step" such as making hard cider via fermentation process, the produce is eligible for what is called a commercial processing exemption. As per the FSMA produce safety rule, produce is eligible for the commercial processing exemption if the following conditions in 21 CFR § 112.2(b) are met:
  • The produce receives commercial processing that adequately reduces the presence of microorganisms of public health significance (e.g., processing in accordance with the requirements of the juice HACCP regulations in 21 CFR part 120; refining, distilling, or otherwise manufacturing/processing produce into products such as sugar, oil, spirits, wine, beer or similar products); and
  • The covered farm discloses in documents accompanying the produce, in accordance with the practice of the trade, that the food is “not processed to adequately reduce the presence of microorganisms of public health significance.”

What are the FSMA Produce Safety Rule requirements regarding selling dropped produce?

Section 21 CFR § 112.114 (Produce Safety Rule) states for that those farms covered by the Produce Safety Rule, you must not distribute "dropped covered produce". Dropped covered produce is covered produce that drops to the ground before harvest. 

Dropped covered produce does not include: 
  • root crops that grow underground (such as carrots); 
  • crops that grow on the ground (such as cantaloupe); or 
  • produce that is intentionally dropped to the ground as part of harvesting (such as walnuts)
However, produce that grows off the ground, such as tomatoes and apples, and that drops to the ground before harvest is considered dropped covered produce.

While the FSMA Rule technically allows crops such as melons (that grow on the ground) to be sold into the market if they have been dropped before harvest, it is still a best practice to not sell these items once they have been dropped from any height, due to the reasons outlined above. You could eat these items yourself, for example, but there is an increased risk of infiltration for these items, and they will also not hold up in storage. 

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