A lot of attention towards growing safer produce has been the focus of commercial agriculture and the food industry over the years. However, when reviewing resource materials for the consumer on food safety concerns in planting a garden, information was limited. Whether you are a seasoned gardener or just starting out for the first time this spring you should be aware and understand potential risks that could affect the safety of the produce being grown.
Produce has been connected to many foodborne outbreaks and fatalities over the years. Items such as cantaloupes, lettuce, tomatoes, watermelons, sprouts, berries, etc. have been repeat offenders. Understanding what factors or poor practices lead to contamination, will allow you to make sound sensible decisions. Produce like any other food groups can easily be contaminated with biological, physical or chemical contamination. Biological contamination represents most reported foodborne illness associated with bacteria, molds, parasites, yeasts, or viruses. Much of this contamination occurs through cross-contamination, poor hygiene, time temperature control or poor cleaning and sanitation. Produce can also be unsafe to eat if it has been exposed to chemical contaminants. Chemical contaminants can include, arsenic, lead, mercury, other heavy metals, paints, industrial agents or pesticides. Physical contamination could include metal, glass, foreign objects. Physical contamination can result in mouth injuries or choking. Understanding how those food safety risks (biological, chemical or physical) may come into contact with produce being grown will enable you to assess how to safely grow your produce.
Key points to consider to lower your risk or exposure to a foodborne illness from what you have grown.
Choose an area where the produce can be grown safely. Avoid planting a garden next to roadways, buildings or sheds constructed before 1978, land that once was used for orchard production, over septic systems, or fill soils dumped from road cleanings. Potential risks include lead, arsenic, dioxins, pesticides, metal/foreign objects, bacteria, viruses, parasites. If the ground soil seems at risk, consider raised beds with clean soil.
Applying animal fertilizer to a garden too close to planting season may put the produce at risk for biological risks (bacteria). E. coli and Salmonella are natural bacteria found in livestock feces and cause foodborne illness in humans each year. Animal manure, when composted correctly and applied at appropriate times of the growing season, makes excellent fertilizers. Never apply raw, uncomposted animal manure to your garden. When using any commercial fertilizers or pesticides, follow the instructions from the manufacture. Excess concentrations of fertilizers or pesticides could lead to a chemical contamination if not applied appropriately. Limit or restrict the access of pets into your garden. Cats can be reservoirs for toxoplasmosis, a parasite that is passed in the cat feces. Use a safe water source when watering your plants. Water drawn from streams or ponds may contain bacteria or parasites that can contaminate produce.
Follow good practices to avoid cross contamination or time temperature abuse of the produce. Biological contaminants remain the biggest culprit for food borne illness in produce and often show up during the harvesting. Knowing how and what to implement in good practices will lower the risks associated with biological contaminants. Use clean tools, wash shovels, knives, scissors, buckets, carts, etc. to remove any surface contaminates. Harvest your produce quickly and never leave harvested produce directly in the sun, place under shade or in cool dry environments. Clean produce by removing visible surface contaminants, via brushing off dried soil or washing and placing clean produce in the refrigerator.
Growing a garden can be a great source of satisfaction and sensible factor to save on food costs. Understanding how your produce is grown and eliminating potential risk will enable you to plan accordingly to grow a safe garden.