by Sally Colby
Chris Blanchard says that food safety matters.
“With fresh vegetables, we are the last step before product actually goes in somebody’s mouth,” said Blanchard. “Much of what we produce, the customers are taking home and either minimally processing it (washing and slicing) or putting it straight in their mouth. There might not be a ‘kill’ step that happens between someone buying a product and ingesting it.”
Blanchard has owned and operated an organic farm for 15 years, raising 20 acres of crops that he markets through a 200-member year-round CSA, farmers’ markets and food stores. He’s spent a lot of time packing salad greens, washing root crops and putting fresh herbs into clamshells.
“All of it made us really focus on our packing shed operations,” said Blanchard. “If we want to compete with the rest of agriculture, we have to figure out which of their rules we have to play by.” Blanchard noticed consumers at farmers markets want products that appear in the form they expect. “Carrots needed to have no dirt on them, salad mixed bagged and ready to eat, and same with clamshell fresh herbs,” he said. “It made us focus on food safety on the farm, and think hard about the impact that would have.”
Blanchard says almost all food poisoning is the result of fecal-oral contamination, and that nearly all 24-hour gastrointestinal illnesses are the result of food poisoning. “Food borne pathogens such as salmonella, certain strains of E. coli, listeria and viruses are in fecal material,” he said, “then somebody eats that fecal material; unknowingly, and they get sick.” Compounding the issue is the fact that the infectious dose (to cause foodborne illness) is a lot lower than previously thought.
“It’s a legal responsibility to provide safe produce,” said Blanchard. “It’s been illegal for a long time to ship adulterated produce, and produce that has foodborne pathogens on it is considered to be adulterated. There’s also an ethical obligation to customers in the local foods community.”
Blanchard refers to the 2006 E. coli in fresh spinach as the 9-11 of the produce world. “That year, 50 billion servings of fresh cut, bagged salad greens were sold, but only 276 people got sick and were traced to that outbreak,” he said. There were three fatalities associated with the spinach outbreak and spinach sales are still down. “They’ve never recovered to pre-2006 levels. That means that if there is a community of providers, like for a farm to school program, and someone gets sick from that and it can be traced back, the media will grab ahold and be like a dog with a bone until they kill the industry because people don’t have a rational assessment of risk,” Blanchard said.
How much risk is too much? Some may dismiss the spinach issue because it happened to a mega-farmer in California and doesn’t apply to small farmers ‘because small farms are safer’. “I don’t buy it,” said Blanchard. “I’ve spent a lot of time looking at food safety issues on small farms and small farms are not safer. The reason we tend to detect outbreaks in national produce distribution is because of the size.”
The bottom line for food safety in fresh produce is to keep feces off the food. “That seems pretty fundamental,” said Blanchard. “We want to keep fecal material from ending up on produce, and keep things that might have come in contact with fecal material from coming in contact with produce. That all makes a lot of sense until we think about the fact that we live in a poop-filled world. Even slugs have been shown to carry salmonella. I’m not proposing that we put little electric fences around each head of lettuce to keep slugs out, but we want to go to the next step with the assumption that there’s poop on the food because there’s a chance that there might be. So now we want to keep the poop from spreading.”
Blanchard says fecal matter spreads primarily because it ends up on food handling surfaces such as totes, gloves and knives. It can also get in the wash water.
According to Blanchard, the assumption should always be that there are feces on the hands. “Maybe someone didn’t wash after using the bathroom or hauled a tote from the field that sat in deer feces,” he said. “Wash hands frequently and before handling produce. Use running water. It can be coming from tank sitting beside a sink, but water should run over the hands.”
Proper hand washing includes using soap and rubbing with firm pressure. Any soap will do – antibacterial soap is no more effective than regular soap. Blanchard says hand sanitizer is not a substitute for soap because it doesn’t work in the presence of soil. “Hot water is not necessary and doesn’t increase effectiveness, but does increase the chance of someone washing properly because it’s more comfortable,” he said. “It’s important to have a dedicated hand washing sink where nothing else is washed.”
During washing, fingers should be rubbed between other fingers with the amount of vigor it would take to warm up cold hands. After washing, rinse well and use a single use towel. Cloth towels should be used once and then laundered.
“If you shake hands with someone who has soiled hands and your hand is wet, that will pick up and spread soil and bacteria,” said Blanchard. “Dry hands thoroughly before going back to work.”
When should hands be washed? Blanchard says when it comes to food safety, we can’t wash too often. “After visiting the bathroom, petting animals, eating or smoking,” he said. “Before touching food, and before touching things that are going to touch food. On my farm, you have to wash before putting labels on clamshells. Coming out of packing shed, wash hands. Before harvest, wash hands.”
Another important aspect of food safety is that sick people don’t work. Blanchard says gastrointestinal illnesses are ‘explosive’ events, and fill the bathroom with a fog of fecal material – even if it isn’t visible. In such cases, a person might wash their hands, but their clothing is contaminated.
Both domestic and wild animals should be shut out of food handling facilities. “Deny winter habitat, monitor for pests, use traps correctly,” said Blanchard. “Catch rodents by placing traps properly. Use screens to keep birds and insects out, and don’t allow birds to roost.”
Make sure water is not a source of contamination. For wash water sanitizer, test after using to make sure it’s effective. Blanchard says the purpose of wash water sanitizers is to keep bacteria from moving from one piece of produce to another. “When you’re putting produce in treated water, it doesn’t remove all of the bacteria,” he said. “E. coli bacteria in lettuce stoma can survive a wash water bath, so don’t harvest produce that has fecal contamination. Also, don’t wash hot (from the field) crops in cold water. If you put in hot peppers or hot melons, water will be sucked into the fruit. Wash water should not be any more than 10 degrees colder than the temperature of the produce being washed. “
Blanchard recommends washing packing shed surfaces at the beginning and end of the day. Tools should also be washed at the beginning and end of the day. Start by rinsing off dirt loose debris, then clean using elbow grease and detergent. Use an appropriate hard surface sanitizer after washing.