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Top 10 tips to reduce liability and food safety risks for U-picks and orchards this fall

Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator, food safety

Orchards and U-picks are starting to move into the busy season and are welcoming large number of visitors to the farm. When you invite the public to your farm there are additional food safety and liability concerns to consider to keep your customers safe and your risk as low as possible to avoid a foodborne illness outbreak.  Here are some key recommendations to keep your customers safe and healthy this fall. 

Photo: Annie Klodd

What are the risks?

Many bacteria like Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli can be spread to fresh produce from animals and sick humans. Viruses like Norovirus and Hepatitis can easily transmitted between humans via fresh produce and other food, surfaces and the air.  These bacteria and viruses can seriously sicken people, especially the young, old, and immunocompromised.  There have been outbreaks at agritourism farms, especially those that have animals. Take some basic precautions to reduce the potential for these illness to be spread on your farm.

Some of the information in this post is adapted from this document, prepared by Kansas State University and others.

1. Signs

Signs are an important way to communicate farm expectations and important information to visitors. You can find signs like those listed below and more at UMASH Center agritourism page.

These signs are especially important if you have any livestock on the farm that visitors will interact with! Anytime there are animals that the visitors can pet, ensure that their are signs and handwashing stations available to all visitors (see below).

  • Signs should have large neat print with short, easy to read messages. Bright backgrounds with dark and bold text are a great way to catch the attention of visitors.
  • The location of the sign should be one that is unobstructed, for example not behind plant growth, and placed close to the target area for the message. 

2. Provide handwashing facilities

Visitors and customers should wash their hands before picking fruit, eating, after petting animals etc. Thus, the farm must have handwashing stations at easily accessible locations for visitors and near toilet facilities. If the farm is covered by the FSMA produce safety rule, this is a requirement for the farm.  [§112.33 (a) & §112.33 (b)]. 
  • Handwashing stations are critical to ensure clean hands! Farm Stands that sell ready- to- eat food or allow petting of animals, and U-Pick operations must stress to visitors the importance of washing their hands before handling produce.

  • Goats are great to have on farm, and visitors love to pet and feed them. 
    If you have any livestock on the farm, and even if you don't, you need to provide adequate handwashing facilities for all visitors. 
  • Handwashing stations need to be kept stocked with potable water (this is drinking water, not water from a pond), soap (hand sanitizer is not a substitute for soap ), paper towels, a catch basin or bucket for the wastewater, and a trash can (emptied regularly) nearby to encourage visitors to properly dispose of their paper towels. 

  • More information on how to build a portable handwashing station can be found here. Or you can use a handwashing sink that is provided and serviced by a rental company. 
  • Handwashing stations should be placed outside of restrooms if sinks are not available inside, at the entrance of a picking field, beside food stands, and by areas with animals.
  • Graphics reminding how to properly wash hands are helpful for visitors.

3. What about restrooms?

A clean restroom must be available for your visitors to use.
  • Signs directing visitors to the restroom are best placed in multiple areas of a U-Pick, such as near the entrance and by purchasing stands.
  • The restroom should be clearly identified – use of graphics can be helpful to non-readers.
  • Restrooms, including portable toilets, should be cleaned daily when in use and must be easily accessible by visitors and workers.
  • Keep a restroom cleaning log, which includes dates and times of cleaning and restocking of toilet paper, soap and other supplies. This log also communicates to your customers that cleanliness is important to your operation –a marketing tool!
  • Make it clear to visitors that diapers should be changed only in the designated areas.
  • Toilets should not contribute a source of contamination to food or food contact surfaces; toilet waste should be well contained and not leak into fields.

4. Sick visitors and employees

Sick visitors and workers can spread bacteria and viruses that cause human illness. It only takes a few microscopic cells to infect someone with Norovirus from an ill individual who has not washed their hands.
  • Communicate to visitors and employees experiencing diarrhea, jaundice, or vomiting that they should not participate in on-farm activities.
  • Information regarding this policy should be posted in a sign at the entrance, or if admission tickets or wristbands are used, at the point of sale. This information should also be displayed on promotional material and the operation’s website.
  • Your healthy visitors will appreciate this attention to the control of illness.

5. What parts of the farm can I explore?

  • You will want to restrict access to designated areas on the farm – for example, it is unlikely you want someone rummaging around in the area where pesticides are stored.

6. Pets and Service Animals

  • Guests should be encouraged to leave all pets at home.
  • However, some customers do require service animals. These animals need to be controlled and  waste disposed of in trash cans. 
  • As per the ADA " The individual accompanied by the animal must have the disability for which the animal is trained to assist, and b) the animal must be under complete control of the individual at all times. For more info on service animals see this excellent resource from University of Georgia.
  • Product that is licked or otherwise contaminated by service animals should not be sold.

Dogs and other pets should never be allowed in the growing area. 
Encourage visitors to leave their pets at home. 

7. Product containers

  • Customers should be provided clean picking containers.
  • Reusable, plastic containers can be easily cleaned with potable water and detergent and then sanitized with a diluted bleach solution between uses.
  • The Farm Stand and U-Pick operators maintain greater control of risks from indirect contamination of product if they provide containers rather than allowing customers to bring their own.
  • Store the containers in a protected, clean and covered area off the ground.

8. Samples and eating in the field

  • All fruit and vegetables should be washed before being consumed. Discourage eating in the field.
  • In a U-Pick operation this is hard to control. Signage can help curtail eating unwashed produce with messages about nonpayment and/or health risks. For example a sign could read: “For optimum safety, please wash produce before you eat it.” "No eating in the fields please"
  •  If a Farm Stand is offering samples of cut produce, it must be kept at or below 41°F to avoid growth of harmful microorganisms (which grow very quickly in hot weather!).
  • Samples should be prepared in a clean area and then stored in a protected cooler before offering to visitors. Samples should be kept protected during display with covers and pre-cut portions available.
  • For more information see info here from UMN Extension Food Safety safe sampling program.

9. How should I handle money?

  • Person(s) in charge of customer transactions involving money (particularly cash) should not directly handle produce, so jobs should be assigned strategically.
  • Other options are for workers to handle produce with tongs, a deli tissue, or other clean utensil or having customers deposit cash payments directly into a suitable container. 

10. Safe harvest protocols

  • Do not sell dropped apples unless they go into further processing that will reduce bacterial concerns, such as pasteurized apple juice or pasteurized apple sauce. 
  • Scout the orchard ahead of harvest to identify potential problems. 
  • Avoid placing harvest bins on the ground where they can get contaminated with animal excreta.

Thank you to the NCR FSMA Training Center at Iowa State, Kansas State University and others for compiling some of the information in this post in this document.

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