Food Safety

CT Seeks Better Information & Understanding of Produce Growers

Connecticut seeks better information and understanding of produce growers in the state

bushel of applesThe University of Connecticut Extension is collaborating with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg) to support Connecticut produce growers covered by the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule.  In order to do that, we need to have more and better information about farms that grow produce in Connecticut.

Better knowledge and understanding of who is growing produce in Connecticut, who is covered by the Rule, who may be eligible for an exemption, and who must comply fully with the Rule, can only help us improve implementation of FSMA rules and better meet food safety information and resource needs of Connecticut farms.

Every farmer that fills out the survey will be entered into a drawing to win one of two Connecticut Grown pop-up tents.  In order to participate in the drawing, the survey must be completed/returned by October 1, 2018.

We know that many farms are not covered by or are exempted from parts of the Rule.  Please complete the survey even if you think you may be exempt from parts of the Rule or not covered at all. The information we get from uncovered farms or farms with exemptions will help us to:

  • eliminate any farms from our mailing list that do not grow fruits or vegetables and
  • develop alternative food safety programs aimed at reducing food safety risks of uncovered or exempted farms and helping them meet food safety requirements of potential buyers of their product.

The questionnaire should take only 5-10 minutes to complete. There are three options for completing the questionnaire:

  1. If you would like to complete the online version directly here is the link: Farm Survey Questionnaire
  2. If you would like to complete this survey on your mobile device, scan the QR code here: Produce Survey QR Code
  3. If you would prefer a copy to be emailed or mailed to you, contact Diane Hirsch at: diane.hirsch@uconn.edu 

New Group of Students Trained in Seafood Safety

Nancy Balcom teaches a class at UConn Avery Point in seafood safety
Photo: Judy Benson

Before a bowl of clam chowder or a freshly grilled swordfish steak ends up on a restaurant diner’s plate, specially trained seafood handlers will have been working to eliminate any risk of contamination or hazards that could cause illness.

Many of those handlers will have learned their skills in training offered by Connecticut Sea Grant, including a three-day course held in September of 2017. The three days of training took place at the Avery Point campus of UConn. There, 22 seafood processors, wholesalers and dealers in products ranging from sushi to oysters to soups learned how to identify and control hazards associated with fish and shellfish to keep the public safe and their businesses running smoothly. Completion of the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) classes are required by a 1997 federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulation.

“Any wholesale seafood company has to have at least one HACCP-trained person,” said Nancy Balcom, associate director of Connecticut Sea Grant and co-teacher of the class with Lori Pivarnik, coordinator of food safety outreach and the food safety education program at the University of Rhode Island. While students in the recent class came from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York, previous classes have drawn from outside the Northeast.

After completing the nationally standardized course developed by the Seafood HACCP Alliance of seafood scientists, regulators and industry members, students receive a certificate of training completion from the Association of Food and Drug Officials. They then go back to their workplaces to write site-specific plans for potential seafood safety hazards for the products they handle, applying HACCP principles, Balcom said.

She said HACCP plans are then implemented by each company to manage and minimize the risk of seafoodborne illnesses. Training 75 to 100 seafood processors and

students at the seafood safety course
Photo: Judy Benson

regulators each year, Balcom said she and Pivarnik have trained more than 2,000 individuals in the application of HACCP principles over the past 20 years. Sessions are offered alternately between Avery Point and URI in Narragansett. No exam is given to students at the end of the class, but they build experience developing plans for different seafood products as a group exercise to help them immediately apply what they learn once they return to their own businesses. That is in everyone’s best interest. “The test comes when the FDA comes in and inspects them,” Balcom said.

Balcom and Pivarnik team up to teach the three day standardized class for industry and regulators, as well as a one-day practical course that, in combination with an online course offered through Cornell University, also meets the FDA training requirement. Since 1999, Balcom has offered eight equivalent HACCP training courses specifically for Connecticut shellfishermen under the auspices of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference—the only trainer to do so. Connecticut’s shellfish harvesters are all licensed as seafood dealers, so they fall under the FDA HACCP regulation.

Finally, since 2001, as a School to Career offering, Balcom has taught the standardized industry course 13 times for senior high school students at The Sound School in New Haven, Lyman Hall High School in Wallingford, Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center (BRASTEC) and Grasso Tech in Groton, training 291 students who focus primarily on aquaculture.

The newest group afforded that opportunity were the 17 students from Lyman Hall and Sound School who gathered at the New Haven campus over four days this spring. The HACCP certification training is part of the requirements for Sound School seniors taking the Shellfish Production course.

“It provides a school-to-career opportunity for them,” Balcom said. “Whether they go on to college or start working for industry, the knowledge gained in the class will serve them well. It will make them more viable candidates for working in the seafood industry.”

Article by Judy Benson

Food Safety for Produce Buyers

On July 17, UConn Extension and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture hosted a meeting in Storrs for operations (distributors, schools, institutions, restaurants, grocery stores, and foodservice operations) that buy fresh produce from farms in southern New England. A team of regulators and produce safety educators from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island conceived and developed the program to raise awareness and answer questions about how the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Produce Safety Rule (PSR), Preventive Controls for Human Food, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) audits and state produce inspection programs will affect regional farmers and their customers. More than 50 retailers, regulators, distributors, school and university foodservice personnel and farmers from across New England came to learn.

Diane Hirsch
Diane Wright Hirsch. Photo: Eshan Sonpal

FSMA is the regulation implemented in 2011 to improve the safety of the US food supply. The regulation includes two rules that specifically impact those who grow, distribute and sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Included are the Produce Safety Rule (PSR), the Preventive Controls Rule (PC). “While many believe that meat or eggs or poultry are likely the source of most foodborne illnesses in the US, in fact it is fruits and vegetables that top the list. We need to work to reduce these numbers,” said Diane Wright Hirsch, Food Safety Educator with UConn Extension. “It is important that anyone preparing fruits and vegetables for a restaurant or school or selling them at a grocery store be familiar with the regulations that affect the industry.”

The Preventive Controls Rule regulates those who warehouse and distribute produce. It outlines Good Manufacturing Practices including procedures that impact the safety of the food they are holding: worker hygiene, worker food safety training, sanitation and pest control are some of the practices outlined in the Rule. The Produce Safety Rule requires growers of fresh fruits and vegetables to implement practices that reduce risks for contamination of fresh produce with microorganisms that cause foodborne illness.

Mark Zotti is an Agriculture Marketing/Inspection Representative with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, and says, “Every

Mark Zotti
Mark Zotti. Photo: Eshan Sonpal

farmer should educate themselves on what the FSMA Produce Safety Rule says and how it relates to them. The Rule makes science-based standards for the growing and harvesting and holding/packing of fresh fruits and vegetables. Never before were there laws related to those activities, so it’s important that farms regardless of size, know what the PSR says.”

“There’s been a documented increase in foodborne illnesses related to produce,” Mark states. “A lot of that can be correlated to the increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the regions and practices used during the production of produce. Nationwide we’ve seen the produce industry require that farms who grow for them implement practices aimed at reducing the risk of microbial contamination during the growing, harvesting, holding, and packing of fresh fruits and vegetables. We hope the information provided today benefits the participants and the farmers they work with.”

Sean Stolarik is the Produce Sales Manager for Big Y Foods, Inc, and he attended the July training on behalf of his organization. “This is very relevant to my day to day life. When it comes to food safety and where our growers have to be in terms of regulations, this is very important.”

Sean Stolarik
Sean Stolarik. Photo: Eshan Sonpal

“Today’s training will help Big Y Foods, Inc. with transparency with customers, knowing that the farms we are buying produce from are using safe agricultural practices. It will help me to know what questions to ask the growers and know what requirements that growers must meet,” Sean continues. “My biggest takeaway is that the rules are complex, with many different parts and some allowed exceptions. We are trying to understand the laws because they can be confusing sometimes.”

To help Connecticut farmers comply with the PSR, the Department of Agriculture and UConn Extension are providing nationally accredited Produce Safety Alliance Grower training to fresh fruit and vegetable growers in the state. Growers can attend training, learn the specifics of the regulation, find out about resources available to them, and go back to the farm with the tools needed to make changes in their food safety practices, including making their facilities easier to clean and taking steps to comply with the regulation.

Produce buyers can have access to the curriculum through the Produce Safety Alliance website as well. Downloading and reviewing the grower training materials will help them to determine what practices or procedures they may want to see implemented by the farmers they buy from.

“Everyone needs to take responsibility for their piece of the food system,” Diane concludes. “Farmers need to produce a safe product, distributors need to take that product and keep it safe for consumers that eat it. Produce is a risky food because you are not cooking it for the most part. It’s important to know how to safely grow, harvest, distribute and prepare fresh fruits and vegetable so that we can reduce the risks for consumers.”

For more information visit foodsafety.uconn.edu or ctgrown.gov.

Article by Eshan Sonpal

10 Rules for Safe Canning

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH
Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

home canning with tomatoes
Photo: Diane Wright Hirsch

Even though some may feel home canning has gone the way of the dinosaurs, I regularly get questions posed to me by newbie and experience canners alike. Some want to know how to can tomatoes without potentially killing a loved one. Others want to know if there is anything new in the canning pipeline.

It seems as if more people are gardening these days so that they can have more control over their produce supply—they can grow what they like and minimize the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. A happy consequence of a successful garden is a bountiful supply of zucchini, tomatoes and peppers—maybe too bountiful! As a result, the gardener must now become a food processor. Home canning is not difficult, but, it IS important to do it right. Here are ten rules for canning to help you in your pursuit of a safe home canned food supply—whether you have been canning for years or this is your first time.

1) Make sure your jars/lids are in good shape.
 Use (or re-use) canning jars manufactured for home canning. Check for cracks or chips and throw out or recycle any jars that are not in good shape.
 Be sure the jar rings are not dented or rusty.
 Buy new jar lids. The sealing compound can disintegrate over time, especially in damp basements, so make sure that your supply is new or no more than one year         old. Do not reuse old lids. (If you still use rubber jar rings, these CAN be reused unless they are dry and/or cracked, though these jars may be more prone to failed seals.)

2) Use up to date canning guidelines. With the exception of jams and jellies, recipes that are older than 1996 should be relegated to the family album. A great resource for up to date guidelines and recipes is the National Center for Home Food Preservation at: www.uga.edu/nchfp. This site is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved site for home food preservation information. Go there and check out the latest recommendations. They are also great about addressing some questionable practices that are introduced over the years, such as canning food in the oven or canning bread in a jar.

3) Choose the right canner for the job.
 Water bath canners are for jams, jellies, relishes, pickles, fruits such as apples, apple sauce, peaches and tomatoes.
 Pressure canners are for all other vegetables, soups, meats, fish, and some tomato products, especially if they contain large amounts of low acid vegetables such as peppers, celery or onions. Some folks like to can tomatoes in a pressure canner because it takes much less time and uses less fuel/energy.

4) If using a pressure canner with a dial gauge, have it checked annually to make sure it is reading properly. Check with the manufacturer regarding gauge testing or call the Home and Garden Education Center.

5) If you are pressure canning, be sure that the gasket is still soft and pliable. If dry and/or cracked, you need to replace it.

6) Use high quality, just-ripe produce for canning. You will never end up with canned tomatoes (or any other produce) better than those you started with. Overripe strawberries can lead to a runny jam. Overripe, mushy or decayed tomatoes (often sold in baskets labeled “canning tomatoes” when they are really “tomatoes that we can’t sell for slicing because they are past their prime”) may have a lower acid level or higher pH, making the processing time inadequate for safety.

7) Make sure everything is clean before your start. Be sure to clean:
 Canners (often stored in a cobwebby corner of the basement)
 Jars, jar lifter, screw bands, etc.
 Counter tops or other work surfaces
 Your produce (wash with cold running water—no soap or bleach please)
 YOUR HANDS

8) Follow approved recipes to the letter. When you change the amount or type of ingredient, you risk upsetting the balance that would result in a safe, high quality product. Too little sugar will make jams too soft; cutting out the salt may make a pickle recipe unsafe; and throwing additional onions and peppers into a tomato sauce can increase the risk for botulism.

9) Adhere to processing times—even if they seem long. Processing canned foods in a water bath or pressure canner is what makes these products safe for on-the-shelf storage. Each product is assigned the processing time needed to destroy the spoilage organisms and/or pathogens (the kind of bugs that make us sick) that are most likely to be a problem in THAT product.
 The short processing times for jams and jellies destroy yeasts and mold spores that used to be common place when these products were not water-bathed, but covered in paraffin.
 The long processing times for tomatoes are needed because modern tomato varieties are often lower in acid than those in the past. If 45 minutes seems way to long to you (especially when you watch the electric meter ticking away), you might want to consider pressure canning them for 15 minutes at 6 pounds of pressure or 10 minutes at 11 pounds.

10) Allow your jars to cool naturally, right side up, for 12 hours or more before testing seals. Testing earlier may cause the new seal to break.
 Cool jars away from an open window to prevent breakage by cool evening breezes on hot jars.
 Remove screw bands, clean and dry them and store several in a convenient place for use later when you open a jar and need to refrigerate leftovers. (Screw bands should not be left on jars when storing. Food residue and moisture may collect and cause rusting or molding that can ruin a good seal.)
 Test seals, reprocess if needed.

Follow the rules and you will be well on your way to processing a safe, shelf-stable food supply for your household.

For more information about canning food safely at home, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Buying from Local Farms? What do FSMA Rules Mean to Produce Buyers?

bushel of applesBuying From Local Farms? What Do FSMA Rules Mean to Produce Buyers?
On July 17, 2018 a team of regulators and produce safety educators from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are hosting an educational meeting for operations (distributors, schools, institutions, restaurants, grocery stores, foodservice operations, etc.) that buy fresh produce from farms in southern New England.  This meeting will be regional in scope because fresh produce is often sold across state borders, with many customers having operations in two or all of these states.
Attendees will learn about the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Produce Safety Rule (PSR), Preventive Controls for Human Food, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) audits and state produce inspection programs.
 
Do you buy local?  If so, we would like to invite your produce buyer, supply chain manager and/or food safety or quality assurance personnel to attend.
The purpose of this meeting is to help you to understand what the new Produce Safety Rule means to both region’s farmers and to those who buy their product. How might it change (or not change) the way you do business?
 
The meeting is intended for buyers of local produce but farmers are encouraged to attend.  This meeting will offer an opportunity for farmers to network with a wide variety of potential customers.  Local farmers are encouraged to share this announcement with their wholesale customers.  This meeting will an excellent opportunity for both parties to learn about issues each sector faces.
The meeting will be held at the Rome Ballroom on the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs, Connecticut, from 9am to noon on Tuesday, July 17.
Agenda
  • Welcoming remarks
  • FSMA Explained (focus on the Produce Safety Rule related aspects of the Preventive Controls for Human Foods Rule)
  • State focused inspection and compliance programs
  • Panel discussion:  Buyers from a variety of operations will discuss how they address produce safety with their locally sourced fruits and vegetables
See attachment for registration information.  There is no fee for participants, but you must preregister.  Deadline for registration is July 10.
Feel free to share with others who may be interested.
 
If you have any questions, please contact: Diane Hirsch from the University of Connecticut Extension at diane.hirsch@uconn.edu or call 203-407-3163.

Produce Safety Training

Diane Hirsch working with produce prior to a UConn Extension food safety training. Photo: Cameron Faustian
Photo credit: Cameron Faustman

Some medium to larger Connecticut farms need to comply with the Produce Safety Rule (PSR). This includes taking an approved food safety course, implement- ing certain practices that can minimize risk, and keeping records related to those practices. The Connecticut Department of Agriculture conducts a variety of activi- ties related to implementation of the rule, including developing an inspection pro- gram that meets the requirements of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

UConn Extension conducts approved Produce Safety Alliance grower food safety courses and provides informa- tion and resources to help farms comply. Training details can be found at http:// foodsafety.uconn.edu.

Both the Department of Agriculture and Extension are encouraging all farmers to take the course, whether they need to comply with the PSR or if they are exempt or not covered by the rule. Awareness of how produce can contribute to foodborne illness and how to implement safe food handling practices on the farm benefits the industry and its customers.

Article by Diane Wright Hirsch

Food Safety on Farms

carrotsFruits and vegetables add important nutrients, color, variety to our diet. Most of us enjoy them raw in salads, as a snack, or dessert. However, in the last few years there has been an increase in the number of foodborne illness outbreaks asso- ciated with fresh fruits and vegetables. Spinach, cantaloupe, tomatoes, cilantro, and green onions, have been on the outbreak list. Many consumers are unaware that produce is the number one source of foodborne illness—it is more likely to be associated with foodborne illness than meat, poultry, fish or dairy products.

A series of programs and laws were developed to bring consistency nationwide and reduce the number of foodborne illness outbreaks. These include: Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)—a voluntary audit program, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and the FSMA Produce Safety Rule.

The Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule (PSR) was passed in 2011, implemented in 2016, and establishes science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, pack- ing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. The PSR is aimed at reducing

foodborne illness from fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmers that are not exempt from the rule must attend approved training. UConn Extension Educator Diane Hirsch offers the Produce Safety Alliance course, and GAP audit preparation courses.

Case Study: Gresczyk Farms LLC

First of all, I deeply appreciate everything Extension educators do for us as farms. I give credit to Extension forBruce Gresczyk Jr. talks about food safety on his farm everything I’m good at growing. I think the only way agriculture can be strong in this state is if we all do a good job at it. Part of this is food safety.

Admittedly, the part I knew the least about was food safety. The produce rule and FSMA kind of scared me, not knowing anything about it. It’s a very complex law. Plus, our farm also wanted to achieve voluntary GAP certification. Essentially certain buyers on the wholesale level require you to be part of GAP so they can meet the qualifications of their food safety program.

At Gresczyk Farms LLC in New Hartford we grow 130 acres of vegetables. We also have 3⁄4 acres of greenhouses, with vegetable crops grown inside, and 600 laying hens for egg production. I became a course instructor for the Produce Safety Alliance Course, working with Diane.

I like learning and talking about stuff. I figured the best way to handle food safety on our farm is to learn how to teach it. I’ve always been very open with other farmers, and happy to talk to anybody about grow- ing. It gets back to my theory of if we’re all good at farming, it helps agriculture in general. That was my motivation to become a trainer.

I recommend anyone take the class, even if you’re just doing a little bit of farming. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing an acre or 200-acres. The FSMA class can really help farmers improve their decision making.

It’s helped me address the food safety practices on our farm. A lot of what farm- ers are already doing is right, I found it was tweaking more so than anything else. It definitely raised my awareness. We were GAP certified in summer of 2017, and changed a lot of things, but in a good way.

and exclusions in FSMA should take the training we offer through Extension. I always say that if everyone can take a food safety class it will go further than all of these rules, and this even applies to consumers.

If you touch food, you should have some basic knowledge of food safety, and really most of us don’t. And that’s okay too, but the biggest thing you can do is just go through a class. It’s really handy to learn some of these basic practices. Then you’re aware as you’re doing things, it literally can save somebody’s life. It’s a way to think about it, and just to be aware.

Our farm, we’re always growing, we’re trying to get bigger and better every year. We love doing that, and we love growing. Most of all I want to circle back to thanking Extension. Without Extension’s resources’ we wouldn’t have access to science-based, unbiased information. It really helps us incredibly.

Even farms that have a lot of exemptions and exclusions in FSMA should take the training we offer through Extension. I always say that if everyone can take a food safety class it will go further than all of these rules, and this even applies to consumers.

If you touch food, you should have some basic knowledge of food safety, and really most of us don’t. And that’s okay too, but the biggest thing you can do is just go through a class. It’s really handy to learn some of these basic practices. Then you’re aware as you’re doing things, it literally can save somebody’s life. It’s a way to think about it, and just to be aware.

Our farm, we’re always growing, we’re trying to get bigger and better every year. We love doing that, and we love grow- ing. Most of all I want to circle back to thanking Extension. Without Extension’s resources’ we wouldn’t have access to science-based, unbiased information. It really helps us incredibly.

Article by Bruce Gresczyk Jr. and Diane Wright Hirsch

Can I Water Vegetables with my Rain Barrel Water?

By Joan Allen

Originally published by the UConn Home & Garden Education Center

rain barrel against side of house in with shrubs
Photo credit: CT DEEP

Collection of rain water from roofs using rain barrels is growing in popularity because of its many environmental and practical benefits. It can help the environment by diverting water that might contain contaminants away from storm drains and the natural bodies of water that those empty into.  Depletion of well water can be a benefit when this non-potable water is used instead of the tap for things like washing cars, irrigation of plants, and flushing toilets. If you’re on a city/public water system, it can save money to use rain water where you can, too. But is using rain water to irrigate vegetables and fruits safe? Are there contaminants in it that could make people sick? Let’s take a look at what’s been studied.

A few universities in the U.S and abroad have done some work to look at potential contaminants in roof run-off water including heavy metals like zinc, copper, lead and others as well as bacteria such as E. coli and other pathogens. Testing done so far has shown low risk from these, but there is some. And of course, it depends on the type of roofing material, the environment (ie acid rain, urban vs. rural, etc) and possibly other factors. In one study, most of the metals tested the same in rain barrel water as in rain water before it hit the roofs, so little to no concern there. One exception was zinc, and elevated levels could lead to build up of this element in soils. At high enough levels, this can cause injury to plants and those plants should not be consumed (1). Monitor for this by having the soil tested.

While risk appears to be low, there were a few samples in studies (1, 2) where E. coli or total coliform bacterial levels exceeded official standards for some uses. Rain barrel water should NEVER be used for potable purposes such as drinking water, cooking or washing. Where do the bacteria in run-off come from? The main sources would be fecal matter from animals such as squirrels and birds that land and move around on the roof.

But if you’d like to water your vegetable garden with rain barrel water, are there ways to do it safely?

Dr. Mike Dietz, Assistant Extension Educator at UConn with expertise in water management recommends “not using roof water on anything leafy that you are going to eat directly. It would be OK to water soil/plants where there is no direct contact”. This is consistent with recommendations from other experts who suggest applying the water directly to the soil and avoiding contact with above-ground plant parts. An ideal set-up would be to hook up a drip irrigation system to your rain barrel(s). Pressure will be improved when they are full and if they are elevated. A full rain barrel can be pretty heavy, at about 500 lbs. for a 55 gallon unit, so make sure they are on a solid and stable base such as concrete blocks.

If possible, and this is done in larger collection systems automatically, don’t collect the ‘first flush’ of water off the roof. This would be the first few gallons. In a ¼” rainfall as much as 150 gallons can be collected from a 1000 ft2 roof surface (3). The first water to run off tends to have higher concentrations of any contaminants because of them building up on the roof since the previous rainfall event.

Another more practical way to minimize risk of pathogen/bacterial contamination is to treat the collected water with bleach. Rutgers University recommends treating 55 gallons of water by adding one ounce of unscented household chlorine bleach to the barrel once a month (or more often if rain is frequent). Allow this to stand for 24 hours before using the water for irrigation so the bleach can dissipate.

Apply collected water in the morning. Wait until leaves dry in the sun before harvesting. Ultraviolet light from the sun will have some disinfecting effect.

It is recommended to have the rain barrel water tested for E. coli. Be sure to follow the testing lab’s instructions for collection, storage and time sensitivity of the samples.

Thoroughly wash all harvested produce. In addition, you should always thoroughly wash your hands with warm, soapy water after they are in contact with collected water.

In summary, there are risks to using collected rain water for irrigation of food crops. In most cases, the risk appears to be low, and using the above sanitation practices can reduce risk.

References:

  1. DeBusk, K., W. Hunt, D. Osmond and G. Cope. 2009. Water quality of rooftop runoff: implications for residential water harvesting systems. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.
  2. Bakacs, M., M. Haberland and S. Yergeau. 2017. Rain barrels part IV: testing and applying harvested water to irrigate a vegetable garden. Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Fact Sheet FS1218.
  3. Rainfall as a resource. A resident’s guide to rain barrels in Connecticut. CT DEEP.

Lettuce Learn a Bit About E. Coli

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

romaine lettuce
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Recent news reports regarding the romaine lettuce outbreak have, yet again, raised concern about pathogens in our food supply. In particular, leafy greens continue to show up as a source for outbreaks. Two outbreaks since late fall have implicated romaine and/or leafy greens. In both outbreaks, E. coli O157:H7 was the culprit.

What exactly is E. coli?

Escherichia colior E. coliis a group of bacteria, some of which are harmless, and some of which are pathogenic, or disease causing. These bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment: they can survive in water, soil, on plants, and in the intestinal tracts of people and animals. Some types of E. colicause diarrhea, some cause urinary tract infections, and other may cause pneumonia or other diseases.

If you have a well, you are likely familiar with the term “generic E. coli.”  Generic E. coli(sometimes referred to as Biotype I), is found in the intestinal tracts of animals. Therefore, the public health and regulatory community use the presence of generic E. coliis an indicator that some type of fecal contamination (poop) is present. A test for generic E. colican determine if well water is drinkable, if food processing environments are clean, if meat is potentially contaminated with fecal matter or if irrigation water is safe to use on crops.

Generic E. coli, because it is found in fecal matter, may also indicate the potential for the presence of other pathogens that can be found in feces: bacteria such as Salmonellaand pathogenic types of E. coli; viruses such as hepatitis A or norovirus; and parasitic protozoa including Cryptosporidium parvum. All of these microorganisms have been associated with foodborne disease outbreaks.

While there are a number of pathogenic strains, it is Shiga toxin-producing E. coli(STEC) or enterohemorrhagic E. coli(EHEC) that is identified most often as a cause of foodborne illness. O157:H7 is one of several STEC strains. Hamburger, spinach, lettuce, sprouts, unpasteurized or “raw” milk and cheeses, unpasteurized fruit juice including cider, and  flour have all been identified as food sources in O157:H7 outbreaks.

This can be an awful disease. This type of E. coliproduces a Shiga toxin, which can be associated with more severe disease, including bloody diarrhea and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure. The experience of an STEC infection can be different for each person. Contributing factors might include the age of the patient (very young or older people may have more severe infections due to compromised or undeveloped immune systems) and the general health of the person (again, if the immune system is already compromised, the disease may be more severe). However, a healthy adult can also experience more severe disease. Often, the symptoms include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. Again, the CDC states, “If there is fever, it usually is not very high (less than 101˚F/less than 38.5˚C). Most people get better within 5–7 days. Some infections are very mild, but others are severe or even life-threatening.”

Life threatening complications can occur when the Shiga toxin latches onto specific organs, such as the kidney. HUS can result in short term kidney failure or may result in long term disability, or even death.

How does E. coli get into our food?

We have been aware of the risk of E. coliin animal products for years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “STEC live in the guts of ruminant animals, including cattle, goats, sheep, deer, and elk. The major source for human illnesses is cattle. STEC that cause human illness generally do not make animals sick. Other kinds of animals, including pigs and birds, sometimes pick up STEC from the environment and may spread it.”

It was likely the Jack in the Box hamburger related outbreak in 1993 that increased the awareness of both the public and the public health community of the relationship. After that outbreak, Rhode Island passed a law that does not allow restaurants to serve undercooked hamburgers to kids under 12 – a population that is at risk for the worst consequences of an E. coliinfection. At the same time, the recommended safe end-cooking temperature of hamburger was increased to 160 degrees F and sweeping regulation was passed that required meat and poultry processors, to develop food safety plans and be part of a food safety regulation program that included testing for generic E. coli,as well as pathogenic strains of the bacteria.

That makes sense to consumers. After all, if these pathogens are found in the intestinal tracts of animals and in fecal matter, then animal foods are most likely at risk for contamination.

So, how are fruits and vegetables contaminated with E. coli? As stated earlier, E. colican live in ruminants, including deer. Other wildlife may carry the bacteria after picking it up from the environment—the soil, dead animals, or contaminated water. The great outdoors is also the great toilet for these animals. Their feces end up in the soil and water or on the feed of birds or insects. Fruits and vegetables are grown in this soil. There is some risk of contamination as a result. Birds poop on tomatoes, apples fall on deer poop, etc.

Newer regulation target produce growers in an effort to reduce the risk for foodborne illness from fresh fruits and veggies. The Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule includes requirements to test irrigation water, keep records of sanitation practices in the packing house, and employee training concerning personal hygiene and safe handling of produce.

Leafy greens continue to be associated with more outbreaks than other types of vegetables, with the exception of fresh sprouts. First, we eat them raw. There is no kill step to destroy pathogens. Second, they are leafy and grow close to the soil. If contaminated, those leaves can harbor and protect the bacteria. If lettuces are cut and then washed, the contamination can spread to greens that have not been contaminated, making the problem bigger. Once cut or chopped, the greens have even more open surface area that may allow the bacteria to internalize.

Like meat and poultry, any food product that is grown in the field will never be 100% risk free. The industry is hard at work doing what they can to reduce your risk.

So what should a consumer do?

First, do not stop eating greens, tomatoes, or other fresh fruits and vegetables. The benefits of a diet high in fresh produce far outweigh the risk of contracting a foodborne disease from them. Learn how to choose, store, prepare and handle them safely.

Purchase your produce from a farmer that has instituted good agricultural practices and good produce handling practices. If you buy from a local farmer at the farm or at a farmers’ market, ask the farmer if they have attended a food safety course or if they have a food safety program on their farm.

When buying fresh produce, avoid those that are bruised or cut if you are going to eat them raw.  Openings in the skin or bruises may increase the ability of bacteria or other microorganisms to reach the flesh of the fruit or vegetable. Refrigerate produce that should be refrigerated (leafy greens, scallions, broccoli, cucumbers) to minimize growth of microorganisms. In addition, refrigerate all cut produce.

Other food safety tips:

  • Wash all produce prior to eating.
  • Use clean knives, cutting boards, hands and other utensils when preparing raw lettuce for a salad or cutting a melon for breakfast.
  • Don’t cross contaminate ready-to-eat fresh produce with raw meat or poultry. I always prepare the salad first, then the meat for my meal.
  • Store raw, ready-to-eat produce to protect it from raw meat, poultry or fish.
  • Place the meat on a plate if it must be stored above the veggies. (I can never understand why produce drawers are under all other shelves in the fridge, making it a bit easier for meat juices to drip down onto the fresh produce.)

Some folks may want to consider purchasing heads of lettuce rather than chopped greens, though even whole heads of romaine were implicated in the most recent outbreak. If you do purchase pre-cut greens, make sure they are of good quality without a lot of browning or slimy leaves in the bag. If they are washed it is best not to rewash as you risk contamination during the process. However, if there are beginning signs of wilting or mushy leaves, I would wash, dry and store the remaining greens in the refrigerator, wrapped in a clean paper towel.

Continue to enjoy salads, fresh fruit and other veggies on a daily basis. It is an important part of a healthy diet. Just be sure to pay attention good safe food handling practices as you prepare to enjoy your meal.

For more information about food safety, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, check out some of the links in the article, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Poop In The Garden

By: Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

insect on tomato in garden
Photo: Wes Kline, Rutgers University

Over the weekend, before the most recent snow, I looked out my kitchen window to see my dog squatting over the chive patch in our vegetable garden. It was too late to stop him.

I spend a lot of time with Connecticut farmers, talking about producing safe fruits and vegetables. We always talk about how animal feces can affect food safety. Animals and birds are often the source human pathogens or microorganisms that can make us sick. Some examples of those pathogens include E. coli O157:H7 (associated with many outbreaks tied to meat, poultry and fresh produce, most recently lettuce); Salmonella (eggs, poultry, pork, sprouts, cucumbers and cantaloupe); and Listeria monocytogenes (all types of foods, including processed meats, cheese, cantaloupe, apples, and frozen vegetables).

Wildlife can spread human pathogens by depositing feces in fields or water sources and spreading fecal contamination as they move. This is very difficult to control. Complete exclusion may not be possible, depending on the species of wildlife. It can be a tough job for farmers to exert any kind of control over geese, other birds, deer, or rodents.

Generally speaking, a home garden is a more manageable space. There are things you can do to discourage the presence of wildlife, though nothing is fail-proof. The first thing you may have to do is to identify the pest. Once you know which animal is eating the lettuce or leaving droppings around, knowledge of their habits and food needs can help you choose the best method to deter them. The University of Connecticut www.ladybug.uconn.edu site has fact sheets that give advice regarding control of wildlife in your yard. In addition, take a look at http://npic.orst.edu/pest/wildyard.html for additional suggestions on specific species.

Here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Fence your garden. Fences can make for good neighbors, they say, and this is certainly true of fences that keep animals away from your tomatoes. The fence can be as simple as a strong wire mesh. You may have to bury the fence several inches into the ground to prevent creatures from burrowing under the fence. Some animals are perfectly capable of climbing the fence to get to the other side (did someone say, “squirrel”?). A metal shield at the top of the fence might be useful.
  • Be careful where you hang your bird feeders/houses/bird baths. If birds are feeding or nesting at the bird feeders or houses you have purposely added to your yard, they will be more than happy to poop on your plants as they fly back and forth. This is a lesson easily learned as our birdhouse attracts lots of birds and their droppings on our patio furniture and patio tomatoes alike.

In addition, do not let garden trash build up—dropped fruit and pulled weeds can feed and shelter small animals. Cover trashcans, compost bins and other potential sources of food.  Remove pet food or birdseed from the yard.

  • Use decoys or other deterrents. While these can be effective on a variety of wildlife, it is important to move the decoys every few days. Deer, birds and rodents may be smarter than the average bear: they can figure out when a fake coyote is fake.

One of the most difficult “pests” in the backyard vegetable garden can be Fido or Fluffy—resident dogs and cats. Fencing is most likely to help keep the dog away. Of course, you need to remember to close the gate. An open gate turned out to be how my dog got into the chive patch.

Cats love the soft soil of a garden and WILL use it as a litter box. Of course, the best course of action is not to let your cat out at all. There are too many ways they can get injured, sick, or worse whether you live in a city, suburb, or on acres of land.

If the dog gets through the gate or over the fence and poops on your edibles, there is little you can do. If it is early in the season and the plant has no edible parts, you can wait 120 days to harvest, treating the feces like raw manure—feces from another species. If harvestable or close to harvestable produce is affected, it is best to leave it on the plant. Do not harvest, do not eat; do not harvest, wash and eat. It is just too risky.

This would be true if you see signs that indicate the presence of other wildlife as well. Bird poop on the tomatoes or lettuce leaves; mouse droppings in the herb bed; or evidence that rabbits have been gnawing on the cucumbers. You really should not eat any fruits or vegetables that have been pooped upon. Washing is not necessarily going to totally eliminate any risk from human pathogens that might have been left behind. Do not toss affected produce in the compost bin either. Animal feces should never be added to compost that will be used on edible plants.

This advice is especially important if you have kids, seniors or others in your family who might have a compromised immune system. It is just not worth the risk.

For more information about food safety and controlling wildlife in your back yard, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, check out some of the links in the article, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.