by Tamara Scully

Although COVID-19 is not thought to be transmitted as a foodborne illness, it is transmittable via contaminated surfaces, including produce packaging, tools and equipment, tables, bins, coolers and other surfaces part of the food supply chain. If food safety is a priority for your farm operation, COVID-19 means that you are doing more of what you should already be doing to keep food safe, and doing it frequently.

A group of food safety educators spoke during a webinar presented by Chesapeake Harvest and Future Harvest. Lindsay Gilmour, Aleya Fraser, Elizabeth Beggins and Kimberly Raikes addressed various aspects of on-farm food safety and post-harvest handling.

Farmers are “on the frontline of COVID-19,” Fraser said, and need to be prepared to protect themselves, their workers and their customers. “There’s no better time than right now to review, improve and reinforce things that you’re doing every day. We want to keep people safe, and we don’t want to lose customers.”

Safety Protocols

Implementing food safety practices every step from seed to transplant, and from harvest to sale, takes on more urgency when a pathogen such as COVID-19 emerges. It is transmitted person-to-person via respiratory droplets, and able to live on many contact surfaces for hour or days, which means virtually anything could potentially harbor this virulent pathogen. Proper cleaning and disinfecting at every step along the food production and supply chain is needed.

The lack of foodborne transmission means that farmers don’t have the added stress of worrying about recalls, as the food product itself would not be the cause of the disease. But strict and thorough enforcement of on-farm protocols, including hand washing and cleaning and disinfecting procedures, are in order. Rethinking equipment use and cleaning protocols to minimize areas where pathogens can hide; reinforcing best handling practices to reduce any chance of pathogens surviving anywhere within your operation; and maximizing the ability to wash hands are all steps farmers can take, Fraser said.

Measures to enforce social distancing need to be established. Figure out how to reduce the number of touches to surfaces as well as to produce. Hand washing stations with disposable towels should be set up for customers before they enter the farm, and additional stations should be in various work areas (field, greenhouse, packing shed, cooler, sales area) to make regular hand washing routine for all employees.

Designate specific people to be responsible for cleaning and sanitizing. Divide your workforce into shifts, so if one person gets sick, you will have staff that haven’t been exposed. The second crew can continue to keep your farm operational, Fraser said. No sick employees should be allowed to come to work.

Clothes, including hats and aprons, need to be kept clean. Aprons should be changed when switching between jobs to avoid transporting germs from one area to another. All equipment needs to be cleaned and sanitized before and after every use. This includes coolers, crates, sink, packing lines, hand tools and more.

Clean & Sanitize

Surfaces can’t be sanitized if they are dirty, so cleaning comes first. Beggins reminded farmers that brushes and belts on equipment need to be cleaned too, and they need to be undamaged. Pests need to be excluded from all areas of the operation, and walk-in coolers need to be cleaned and disinfected regularly. Fans should be clean and properly working to avoid condensation issues that can lead to spoilage pathogens on stored produce. Transportation vehicles also need to be sanitized.

There are multiple steps when it comes to sanitizing. First, dirt must be removed via cleaning. Detergent and scrubbing will do the trick, followed by a rinse with clean water. Sanitizer appropriate for the job should be used as per label instructions, and then air drying is needed. Sanitizing is not always required after cleaning, as some things carry a greater risk of contamination than others.

Changing your system to utilize less risky steps – such as using a single pass spray system when cleaning root vegetables, rather than the dunk method – can help you become more efficient, as a single pass system does not require sanitizing while the dunk system does.

Post-Harvest Quality

“COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness unless we put it there,” Gilmour said, adding that utilizing the best post-harvest protocols and keeping food safety in mind will decrease the likelihood of that happening. “Your post-harvest handling includes food safety.”

Pathogens can live on surfaces, so food packaging can become contaminated. Practicing hand washing and surface cleaning and sanitizing throughout the supply chain, including during transport, can prevent this. Pallets, trucks and storage areas need to be sanitized. Produce should be stored off the floor, and any containers should be cleaned between uses.

Time, temperature, humidity, respiration and transpiration rates and physical damage all play a role in allowing pathogens to thrive on produce. Properly cooling crops according to their needs is paramount. Room temperature cooling, forced air cooling or hydrocooling methods all have pros and cons, and may be best suited for different crops. Reviewing your post-harvest cooling and storage protocols, as well as minimizing temperature fluctuations throughout the supply chain, can prevent pathogens from thriving. Post-harvest handling increases shelf-life, reduces loss, enhances quality and keeps customers satisfied, Gilmour said.

Once good food safety protocols are established and utilized daily, your farm becomes much more efficient. Having effective standard operating procedures in place keeps things running smoothly, as food safety is built into the daily routine, Beggins said.

Sharing your food safety measures with your customers is another best practice. It signals that you are serious about protecting their health and providing the highest quality product you possibly can.

“Food safety steps and post-harvest handling steps create value for your customers,” Beggins said. Food safety procedures “should be part of your everyday practice.”