By: Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD
Year round farmers markets are already selling early spring greens to those of us who have been craving the fresh, locally grown stuff during the long winter months. The use of greenhouses, cold frames and hoop houses and other season-extending contraptions make it possible for Connecticut farmers to satiate the growing appetite for lettuce, kale, spinach and arugula as early as February. Even home gardeners, eager to get their growing season under way before the last killing frost are using cold frames and row covers.
As the first of our favorite greens begin to show up in our gardens and farmers markets, it is a good time to refresh the memory regarding the need to handle them with a bit of care and good sense. Greens have developed a bit of a reputation for being the source of some relatively large foodborne disease outbreaks.
Lettuce and other greens are grown in the soil in the natural environment, near farm animals and wildlife. Norovirus, Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7, which can come from water and soil contaminated with animal waste, are all microorganisms that cause foodborne disease outbreaks associated with fresh greens.
In 2013, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published its report addressing the attribution of foodborne illness to foods and pathogens (organisms that cause illness) from 1998-2008. This report looked at all foodborne illness, identifying that leafy greens are associated with 22% of all foodborne illness. Most of us were quite aware of the outbreak resulting from bagged spinach in 2006. But greens associated outbreaks and recalls (testing indicates the presence of pathogens, but no one has reported an illness), continue.
A look at outbreak statistics since 2010 indicate that there may have been some improvement. This could be the result of a number of initiatives and practices addressing the safety of produce as a whole and leafy greens, particularly. The first was GAP or Good Agricultural Practices audit programs.
For almost 20 years, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have encouraged produce farmers to follow GAP guidelines developed to help reduce the risk for illness from fresh produce. Talk to your local produce farmer or look for labels that might tell you if the produce you are choosing was grown and harvested following GAP guidelines. Growers that follow GAP guidelines review their on-farm food safety practices during growing, harvesting, processing and transporting of fresh produce including:
- Application of manure (use of composted or treated manure, how it is applied)
- Home gardeners would do well to follow the guidelines that GAP farmers use, even if on a smaller scale.
- Pay attention to the source of the water you use in your garden.
- Use only well composted manure and compost.
- Wash hands before harvest and use clean harvest bins.
In recent years, it appears that fewer outbreaks have been tied to leafy greens. This may be due to GAP food safety auditing programs required by large customers such as grocery stores or big box stores. Farmers participating in the GAP program are doing the best job they can to include preventive steps that help produce safer spinach and arugula. However, food safety is still everyone’s responsibility. You need to handle leafy greens safely at home, by making it your habit to do the following:
- Keep in mind that organic greens are just as likely to be contaminated with bacteria or other microorganisms as conventionally grown produce.
For more information about the safe handling of fresh greens and other produce, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at 860.486.6271 or visit the UConn food safety website at: www.foodsafety.uconn.edu.