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Posts Tagged ‘pick your own’

Why Farmers Are Pleading: Leave Your Dogs Home

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety

Jonathan HuskyOver the years I have worked with many fruit and vegetable farmers, as they have become the focus of new food safety regulations. Some of these farms sell their product through pick-your-own (PYO) operations, some at an on-farm stand; others have CSA (community supported agriculture) programs. More and more of them are no longer allowing visiting dogs on their property. Some customers are not taking it well.

It can be difficult after years of being allowed to bring the dog along to the farm as you pick apples or visit the market. There might have even been a farm dog or two lounging in the back of the store or running up and down the aisles. But, things have changed, including food safety standards of practice. Believe it when I say, this is much harder on the farmer.

Starting with the voluntary Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program over ten years ago, it has become the standard for dogs, cats, and even wandering chickens to be reined in during the harvest season, in particular. These new practices and rules came about when fruits and vegetables hit the top of the “most likely to cause a foodborne illness” charts. Outbreaks associated with fresh produce are making more people sick than seafood, hamburger, or chicken. The new federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule, adopted due to this increase in association with outbreaks, will result in food safety inspections of some of the larger farms in Connecticut—and more attention will be given to where Kitty or Spot are roaming.

Cats can no longer be used as pest control in a packinghouse. Chickens cannot be free ranging in the lettuce fields. Pet dogs should not be allowed to defecate near the squash vines. Animal feces can be the source of Salmonella, E. coli and other disease causing microbes associated with foodborne illness. Of course, this is not limited to domesticated animals. Wildlife must be carefully monitored, and, when possible, managed with fences or repellents, such as an air cannon. Outbreaks have been associated with feces on produce. It only makes sense to try to reduce the risk.

So consider the farmer and the burden visiting pets may place on them. Dogs make great pets, but they come with some bad habits that may have an impact on the safety of the food a farm grows and sells. What are you going to do when at a moment you are distracted, perhaps paying your bill; your dog lifts its leg on a produce display, or box of apples at the farmers’ market? Even if the owner attempts to be fastidious about cleaning up after a dog’s mess, it’s unlikely that all traces of poop can be removed. It will be left to be tracked throughout the market or growing area. Chances are you are petting your dog, and then choosing the perfect apple without even thinking twice about it.

While food safety is one concern, customer safety can certainly be another reason for the “NO DOGS ALLOWED” signs. Dogs will be dogs, and no matter how
well trained, dog bites, dog fights and other unpleasant contacts with other customers can sometimes be problematic. Some folks may be allergic to your dog. It would be much better if you just buy some gourmet home-made dog treats at the market and bring them home to her.

Yes, it is true that some farmers’ markets and even some pick your own farms still allow patrons to bring their pets along for the ride. It is a risky choice they make. Please follow the rules at the farm you choose to visit—and thank the farmer for their concern for customer health and wellbeing.

In addition to restrictions on Fido, the farmer may encourage you to wash your hands before picking your own berries or after using the portable toilet. Or they may ask you not to visit the farm if you are sick. Foodborne disease outbreaks are often traced back to sick people or unclean hands that are touching food. And we all know that when we are choosing our fresh produce we have to handle at least six or seven tomatoes or cucumbers or whatever before we find the one that we are happy with.

Farms are also limiting public access to their farm animals. Some of this has resulted from farm visitors getting sick after handling baby goats or chickens. These animals may carry pathogens (the microbes that make us sick) with no outward signs of illness. Another farm no longer lets visitors feed goats, as there is no on-label rabies vaccination available for goats. While they may use an off-label product, perhaps one that is approved for other farm animals, technically, the goats are not vaccinated. Famers do not want customers inadvertently contracting rabies from one of their animals.

Pick Your Own Apples – Avoid Those with Bird Droppings

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Extension Educator/Food Safety

apples on tree

Photo: Stacey Stearns

Connecticut has an abundance of farms that open their gates to those who want to pick their own raspberries, apples, vegetables and other seasonal offerings. I have picked raspberries well into October in the past, though I am not sure how the hot summer and early fall have impacted the longevity of the berry season this year. But, you can easily find apples and perhaps pears only a short drive from where you live. To find Pick Your Own (PYO) farms near you, go to www.ct.gov and search for “pick your own farms in Connecticut.” This will bring you to a list of farms by county offering small fruits (berries), large fruits (apples, pears) and vegetables as well as pumpkins and Christmas trees.

However, this is not an article simply about where to find PYO farms. This is a message about being a responsible PYO customer.

Chances are you have read articles about fruits and vegetables being the source of foodborne outbreaks in recent years. Produce has risen to the top of the list as likely sources of illnesses caused by Listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli and parasites such as cyclospora and cryptosporidium.

Produce can be contaminated in the field and during harvest. Wildlife can deposit poop in the fields or directly on the fruits or vegetables; rodents and insects can contaminate produce with animal manure that can be on their feet; those who harvest produce can contaminate apples or pears or berries with dirty hands. Irrigation water can also contaminate produce if the source is not safe. Nature is nature, but there are things you can do to minimize your risks.

In a PYO operation YOU are the farmer, the harvester, the handler. While most consumers would never eat berries or apples from the grocery store without washing them first, they think nothing of plucking the strawberry right off the vine and popping it in their mouth. Or they let their young children do it—a population that is more vulnerable to the worst effects of a foodborne illness.

So, what are some simple guidelines for a safer PYO experience for you and your family (and others who follow you in the field or orchard)?

  • Clean hands are important

Be sure to wash your hands before picking. Your farm does not have a handwash station? Complain. Especially if this farm also has an animal venue—goats to pet or llamas to feed. After visiting the animals it is especially important to wash your hands. Sanitizer does not do much good on dirty hands. You need soap and water. If sanitizer is your only option, certainly you should use it. But farms by now should know the need for both bathroom and handwash facilities for their patrons.

  • Don’t even think of coming here if you are sick

When I was picking raspberries a few weeks ago, a young woman in the next aisle was complaining to her companion that she did not feel well. She had a sore throat and was coughing. I moved away from her. Sick people should not be picking berries. Period.

  • Use clean containers

Again, if the farm does not provide clean containers, bring your own or go elsewhere. It could be as simple as lining reuseable bins or boxes with a clean plastic bag or liner for each new customer. Containers with even a few hours of accumulated juice, dirt and field debris can certainly harbor the bacteria that we really do not want to bring home with us.

  • Don’t pick up fruit from the ground

Again, two words: wildlife and poop. Pick berries from the vine, fruit from the tree. “Drops” always run the risk of being contaminated with microbes that can cause an illness. If you see any evidence of deer or other droppings, be sure to tell a farm employee.

  • Pick fruits and veggies that are in good condition

Avoid produce that has evidence of bird droppings. Rotten, moldy or produce that may have been chewed by bugs or rodents should be left on the vine. Rotten spots, cuts, and other breaks in the surface of the fruit or vegetable can be a microbe’s doorway to the inside. Handle what you pick carefully.

  • Leave Fido at home (and NOT in the car)

Farms do not really need another animal to worry about. Dog waste is no different from that of wildlife. Even the most conscientious owner can leave traces behind as they pick up after their dog.

And, finally, watch the kids. PYO operations are a great way to teach children where their food comes from. It gets them outdoors and provides much needed time away from touch screens. But, it is important to teach them good PYO etiquette as well. Do not let them pick up drops from the ground or eat directly off the plant and tell them why it is not a good idea. Teach them the importance of washing their hands before handling food. Feed the kids before you visit: bring a water bottle, but it is best not to eat snacks in the field. Save the picnic for later.

Please do not change diapers in the field. Remember what I said about wildlife and poop? Do that in your car and be sure to dispose of the dirty diapers in a covered trash receptacle.

For more information on safe food handling, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271 or visit www.foodsafety.uconn.edu.