By DOUG GRAVES
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Selling fruits and vegetables at a roadside stand used to be so simple. But with the growth of these ventures and the fact produce has been identified as a cause of some major foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years, a need arose to address these problems.
What Ohio State University extension educators came up with was a food safety course, better known as good agricultural practices, or GAPs. GAPs are a set of recommendations that can help improve the quality and safety of produce. These general guidelines can be adapted or incorporated into any production system.
GAPs focus on four primary components of production and processing: soil, water, hands and surfaces. A GAPs meeting is slated for Oct. 3 at the Urban Community School, 4909 Lorain Ave. in Lorain. The program is from 6-9 p.m. and registrations will be accepted at the door.
“One hates to think of contamination or health hazards with any business, but when you’re dealing with fruits and vegetables as I do, it’s important to have a solid knowledge of these things, and GAP meetings are the way to go,” said Connie Skinner, a popular and regular vendor at farm markets in Lebanon and Cincinnati.
“I thought I had a handle on food safety and the like, but the GAP meetings are a must for vendors like me.” Skinner attended a GAPs meeting last week in Chillicothe.
Food safety concerns are increasing as illness-causing microorganisms become more prevalent and as products previously considered safe cause an increasing number of illnesses each year. Produce, until recently thought safe, has been identified as a cause of major foodborne illness outbreaks.
Illnesses are primarily caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. These microorganisms, often referred to as pathogens or biological hazards, also are associated with ground beef, poultry, eggs and seafood. Cooking is a common method of easily killing most pathogens in those foods; however, fresh produce is often consumed raw.
In addition, produce is exposed to naturally occurring biological hazards in the soil, water and air. The potential risk for contamination is increased by production practices using manure for fertilizer and human handling of products.
Developing a safety plan helps food producers manage the safety component of their operation by organizing the action steps identified as key to reducing those risks. Documenting current practices and any changes over time allows for monitoring the safety of the food product. These guidelines and more are offered at the GAPs meetings.
“They’re highly beneficial, as you learn how vital it is to maintain clean soil to reduce contamination of produce,” Skinner explained. “You pick up tips about the use of manure, about the pathogens even found in water, the frequent testing of that water, drip irrigation and even having good hand-washing techniques.
“But the part (that) alerted me the most was the physical contact with other surfaces that my produce comes into contact with, and things to do and avoid when transporting fruits and vegetables to market or to the restaurant. This was a real eye-opener for me.”
The GAPs program will offer attendees a food safety plan that deals with all aspects of production and processing, including manure management, water management, product handling, cleaning and sanitation. Topics also include employee training and crisis management.
“Having a food safety plan in place is a good start, but just like any other business or marking plan, the food safety plan requires revision and updates to stay current with one’s operations,” Skinner said. “Not only did I attend, but my two co-workers attended as well.”
For more information, contact Jacqueline Kowalski at 216-429-8200, ext. 217.