Food safety begins with proper prevention

The National Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) was started in 1999 and was initially funded by CREES-USDA and the United States Food and Drug Administration (US-FDA). Its purpose was to reduce microbial risk in fruits and vegetables. GAP guidelines aim at reducing the risk of food safety hazards during the production, handling and processing of produce. The program is voluntary unless a processor is selling food to the federal government for school lunch programs.

Crops are checked before migrant workers begin harvesting.
Proper manure disposal from farm animals affects nearby fruit and vegetable growers.

During the last year, numerous outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have been linked to uncooked fruits and vegetables. These are only a few that have made headlines:

• September 2006—California spinach was blamed for a nationwide outbreak of illness and deaths. It is estimated the nation’s produce industry suffered $100 million in lost sales and other costs tied to the spinach outbreak when at least three deaths and 200 illnesses were traced to E. coli bacteria in fresh spinach from San Benito County. Several factors may have led to the E. coli, including wild pigs in the area, the proximity of irrigation wells used to grow produce for ready-to-eat packaging and surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife. As E. coli can be transmitted by animals, humans and water, the precise means by which bacteria spreads remains unknown.

• September 18, 2007—Dole Fresh Vegetables recalled all salads bearing the label “Dole Hearts Delight” sold in the U.S. and Canada with a “best if used by” date of September 19, 2007, and a production code of “A24924A” or “A24924B” stamped on the package. The reason for the recall was a sample of the product in a Canadian grocery store tested positive for E. coli. 0157:H7. No illnesses have been reported in connection with the Dole Hearts Delight and no other items were included in any other Dole salad products.

• August 29, 2007—A California-based company voluntarily recalled certain bags of fresh spinach after finding salmonella in a batch of spinach during the company’s routine testing. Although no illnesses or problems related to Metz Fresh bagged spinach have been reported, the company advised people with the recalled bagged spinach to throw it out or return it to the store for a refund.

• July 23, 2007—More than 80 canned goods for people and four products for pets made by the Castleberry’s Hot Dog Chili Sauce were recalled this summer. Two people in Texas and two in Indiana became seriously ill and were hospitalized with botulism poisoning after eating Castleberry’s Hot Dog Chili Sauce. As a precaution, the company is widening the recalls.

Change in harvesting practices

As of October 1, 2007, changes have been made to GAPs and GHPs. Many retailers are requiring suppliers to have a third-party audit to show adherence to Good Agri-cultural Practices and ensuring a clean and safe working environment. Harvesting practices focus on worker hygiene, packaging and storage, field sanitation and product transportation.

Up until now, the guidelines only applied to fresh produce or food eaten raw. Now the guidelines have been expanded to include numerous fruit and vegetables, including potato farmers. Potatoes are usually cooked, which reduces the potential for food-related illness. Rick Phillip, spokesman for Boise, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co., a potato processor that contracts with growers in Idaho, North Dakota, Washington, Oregon and the Canadian province of Manitoba, says, “We think it will be something pretty well expected or demanded of the major food producers.”

Good hand washing practices (GHPs) for fruit growers are part of the new federal guidelines to prevent foodborne illness.

The cost of implementing GAPs and GHPs are large and immediate and there is no compensating increase in price for products with GAP. But, many buyers require that GAPs be used. Growers admit it is expensive, but necessary to operating in the U.S. and international markets. Larger farmers have been more successful in adopting GAPs than medium size growers, in part because of the large capital costs. Organized industries have been able to use GAPs to their advantage and reduce losses in case of a foodborne outbreak.

As of October 4, 2007, a checklist has been developed for a “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruit and Vegetables.” An official is to check a “Yes,” “No,” “N/A” and “Doc.” At this time, 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have successfully passed verification.

In San Benito County, growers have put up fences to keep animals from straying into the fields. Water samples are tested monthly from wells and pipelines on farms. Paperwork is ready to show inspectors from the distributors who buy crops. Almost every grower and packer has adopted the new procedures aimed at keeping the green crops free from pathogens.

Challenges of implementing GAPs and GHPs.

One problem of implementing the new standards is the language barrier between employee and employees. Often, there is a dependence on others to understand even one single translated word. The following survey (Good Agricultural Practices Network for Education & Training, GAP.NET) of 689 farm workers shows the following language data:

English: 7.8 percent
Spanish: 87.4 percent
Creole: 4.8 percent

Another challenge is that cultural norms clash with required practices, as to proper hand washing and portable toilets. Also, migrant farm workers arrive at different times of the planting and harvesting season, making it difficult to provide training. Plus, different employers have different requirements.

Training fruit and vegetable workers

Workers wear rubber gloves to remove stems and trash from tomatoes that are headed to markets across the nation.

Farm workers were asked this question: Would you like to receive training and information on proper hand washing for your own protection and to protect the fruit and vegetables you pick? Responding with a “yes” was 73.7 percent and 26.3 percent said “no.” The “no” answers may have been due to not understanding the question. Some suggestions for implementing this training include the following:

• Use both Spanish and English on posters showing the right and the wrong way to wash hands. Basic drawings, with a large “X” on the wrong way helps those who are unable to read.

• Disposal of used toilet paper in portable toilets is a critical issue for sanitation and safety. If not placed in the toilet, the paper can be dragged out into the field on the bottom of shoes. One educational approach is posters of pictures showing the correct way.

Training videos in both English and Spanish provide both visual and auditory learning. Videos accommodate those workers who come in at odd times of the year to help with seasonal work.

Training children to help parents

Due to bilingual education in schools, children of migrant farm workers may be the best links in helping parents understand new practices. Some organizations have developed a coloring book as a resource for farm worker children as part of the education program. Any material should be bilingual and cover a broad age range, include an interesting storyline and activities.

Another reason for training is that children are more prone to foodborne illness. Teaching young children the proper way to wash hands and personal hygiene is vital to keeping produce free from bacteria as they help parents in the fields.

Carolyn Ross Tomlin is a writer based in Jackson, Tenn.

Symptoms of Foodborne Illnesses

Symptoms vary, depending on the age and health of a person that comes into contact with contaminated food.

E. coli causes stomach cramps and diarrhea, which may be bloody. Most healthy people recover in about a week, but seeking medical attention is recommended. However, the young, old and ill may develop life-threatening complications. Food contaminated with this specific strain of E. coli may not even look or smell spoiled, but symptoms include severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Some affected individuals can also suffer seizures or strokes and some may even need blood transfusions and kidney dialysis, or sustain permanent kidney damage.

Estimates of 73,000 cases of E. coli are reported each year in the U.S. and 61 deaths. It is often passed from one person to another if hygiene or hand washing habits are inadequate.

Salmonella bacteria can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps in people. Without treatment, most people recover in four to seven days, but those with weak immune systems, including children and the elderly, may become seriously ill or are most likely to die from salmonella infection.

Botulism, a severe form of food poisoning, can be fatal if not treated quickly. Caused by bacterium that produces a toxin, botulism is sometimes present in improperly canned or preserved foods. In July of 2007, four cases of botulism poisoning were the first in decades that were associated with commercial canned goods.

With this year’s crops, many fruit and vegetable growers must meet the new Federal GAPs and GHPs guidelines. These guidelines are aimed at reducing the risk of food safety during handling, production and processing. Prevention, instead of trying to identify the problem later, is the best recourse for both growers and the consumer.