….be sure to grow with food safety in mind

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety

raised garden bedsIt is hard to believe that spring is just around the corner. Though we in Connecticut were all teased with 35-degree temperatures, we are quickly back in the deep freeze, surrounded by ugly, dirty snow piles that are just not going away.

But go away, they will…and it won’t be long before many churches, schools, community organizations and day care centers are planning, digging and planting their vegetable garden. Gardens have become very popular. It seems like everyone has or wants one: to teach kids about where their food comes from, to grow food to donate to food pantries or community organizations, to save a little money on the ever increasing food budget, or simply for a little outdoor exercise. The locally grown movement has also helped to fuel the garden trend.

If you are working with a group of folks on a community/school/church garden, have you thought beyond the seed catalogues, watering schedules or how you are going to share your bounty? Will this bounty be grown, harvested and handled post-harvest in a way that will minimize the possibility of contamination with the microorganisms that might cause foodborne illness?

Did you know that fresh produce is the number one food source of foodborne illness in the US? The Centers for Disease Control found that 46% of all foodborne illnesses from 1998 to 2008 were attributed to produce and 23% of deaths from foodborne illness (meat and poultry contributed to more deaths-29%).

And yet, few think as they are growing produce to be shared with school children or those with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables that they might want to consider the fact that there are microorganisms in the soil, in bird poop or on the hands of the harvesters that could, in fact, make someone sick—especially those that may have a compromised immune system such as those that have a chronic disease, are pregnant, or are malnourished.

So what should you do? By using good gardening and harvesting practices, you can help to reduce potential food safety risks from the food you grow.

When planning your garden…

Locate vegetable gardens away from manure piles, garbage cans, septic systems, run-off from any potential sources of contamination, and areas where wildlife, farm animals, or pets roam. Test soil for contaminants, particularly lead, prior to planting. If lead levels are greater than 100 ppm, precautions should be taken as outlined in the document, Soil Lead Interpretation Sheet, available from the University of Connecticut Soil Laboratory at 860-486-4274. Do you want to use compost? To be safe for gardening, your compost must reach a temperature of at least 130°F. Check the temperature with a compost thermometer. Don’t use untreated manure in a garden that feeds a community group, school or neighborhood.

vegetablesWhile your garden is growing…

Know your water source and its potential for contamination. Irrigate using water from an approved public water system. You can be sure that water from a municipal or public water system is safe and potable (drinkable). However, water from lakes, ponds, rivers and streams can be polluted by human sewage or animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farm fields, or chemicals from industry and is more risky. Even water from a rain barrel can be contaminated – best to save that for non-edible plants. If well water is used, be sure to test it at least annually to ensure its safety. During the gardening season, keep cats, dogs and other pets out of the garden, as animal waste can be a source of bacteria, parasites and viruses. Curtail nesting and hiding places for rats and mice by minimizing vegetation at the edges of your fruit and vegetable garden. Fencing or noise deterrents may help discourage other animals.

During harvest time…

People who are sick, particularly with vomiting or diarrhea should not work in the garden or harvest produce. Everyone should wash their hands with soap and water before and after harvesting fresh produce. Do you have hand-washing facilities nearby? Harvest into clean, food-grade containers. Food-grade containers are made from materials designed specifically to safely hold food. Garbage bags, trash cans, and any containers that originally held chemicals such as household cleaners or pesticides are not food-grade. If children are helping out, be sure they are supervised by adults who understand safe harvesting practices. It is best not to let them eat fresh picked food before it is washed. If tools are used for harvesting (knives, clippers), make sure that they are cleaned regularly and designated only for garden use.

Once harvested…

If you choose to wash fruits and vegetables before storing, be sure to dry them thoroughly with a clean paper towel. (NEVER wash berries until you are ready to eat them). If you choose to store without washing, shake, rub or brush off any garden dirt with a paper towel or soft brush while still outside. Store unwashed produce in plastic bags or containers. Keep fruit and vegetable bins clean.

When washing produce fresh from the warm outdoors, the rinse water should not be more than 10 degrees colder than the produce. If you are washing refrigerated produce, use cold water. Fresh fruits and vegetables needing refrigeration can be stored below 41° F. Those that are safe to store at room temperature (onions, potatoes, whole, uncut tomatoes) should be in a cool, dry, pest-free, well-ventilated area separate from household chemicals.

For more information about safe produce gardening and food handling, contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center at 877-486-6271 or www.ladybug.uconn.edu or visit www.foodsafety.uconn.edu.