Farmers can wash their hands of food safety fears
As winter approaches and produce growers begin to plan for the next crop, now is a good time to wash away any chance of food contamination in the farming operation, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist.
"The issue of food safety on the farm is important," said Joe Masabni, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist at College Station. "We're working to educate producers about the GAPs, or Good Agricultural Practices, and Good Handling Practices for all the issues from harvesting to packaging.
"It's part of our life nowadays. Producers have to continue to learn for any size operation. From the small farm to the big organic or inorganic 100,000-acre operation, you have to be aware of current issues and get educated and keep up with the trends of the business."
Masabni presented the information recently at a turf and landscape field day at Texas A&M University in College Station. He and his AgriLife Extension colleagues Juan Anciso and Ashley Gregory, both of Weslaco, developed training materials about food safety training on the farm with grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas Department of Agriculture.
"It's all about learning how employee health management practices can reduce the potential for contamination of the produce," Masabni said. "We have been seeing more and more food contamination issues related to fresh fruit or vegetables. So the increase in these incidents of salmonella and E. coli contamination in fruits and vegetables is what got the government interested in addressing this problem."
Initially, the team did workshops to teach people who harvest or work with produce from the field to the market. But that was not enough to continuously educate all people who are employed in the industry, Masabni said.
"So we have a booklet available, and there is a companion online training program a person can use to get a certificate stating that they learned about proper practices to avoid the food safety issues," Masabni said.
Masabni said currently mostly the larger fruit and vegetable growers and packing companies have been accessing the certificate program, but he encouraged all who work in or manage any component of the produce industry to take the time to complete the course.
"I haven't seen really an impact on the small scale or the organic farms, because it's not mandatory yet," Masabni said. "Yet, it's a very easy class to take or booklet to study, and the impact is significant."
He said because of globalization "any mistake in the world can affect everyone else." He cited a recent disease outbreak traced to cucumbers in Germany that affected cucumber sales in the U.S.
"So we cannot say, 'It's not here; it's in another state or in another country,'" he added. "The world is getting smaller, and so for some people if sales of their crops are not finalized, they can go out of business. They cannot afford to sit on $10,000 or $100,000 or even $1,000 worth of produce because of a food safety issue."
He recommends that all producers "think like a big operation and always be on the cutting edge of education and compliance with any and all rules and regulations but especially those that apply to human health because those mistakes are unforgivable."
After completing the course, he added, people should "display that certificate proudly to show that you learned about Good Agricultural Practices and the food safety protocols and principles and that you are observing them.
"Even at a small-scale farmers market, if you display that certificate and a customer sees that your display is clean, your hands are clean and your clothes are clean, the overall impression is that this is a clean operation. And with that certificate, a customer is willing to pay the extra price," Masabni said.
Most food safety issues stem from two things: fecal matter and human hygiene, he said.
"A lot of us forget that with many of these pathogenic bacteria, the source is fecal matter, whether it's human or animal," he said. "If you are aware of that, that is 50 percent of the battle. And water is the biggest source of transmission of fecal pathogenic microorganisms."
Human hygiene issues can be drastically improved by proper hand washing, Masabni added.
"The ideal hand-washing procedure is to lather with soap for 20 seconds, and I think 99 percent of the population does not lather for a whole 20 seconds with soap," he added.
Masabni said that while the course is available anytime, a good time to take it might be now while producers are not as busy in the field. The online course allows people to start the course and either finish at one sitting or return to it as time allows. The course requires approximately three hours to complete.