By JO ANN HUSTIS
KANKAKEE, Ill. — “Clean, clean; keep it clean” was the buzz-phrase at the Meet the Buyers conference sponsored by various agriculture and state organizations at Kankakee Community College Jan. 29.
“Food safety is a big deal,” James Theuri, instructor with the University of Illinois College of Agriculture extension, said in introducing Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) as the second topic at the conference. “For one, people are eating more and more raw and cooked foods. From farm to table is a fast food chain.”
Also apparently on the increase are outbreaks of foodborne disease associated with fresh produce. Which means growers, handler, retailers and consumers – everyone involved in the food handling chain – should be alert to food safety hazards potentially associated with fresh produce. Ensuring the safety of fresh produce begins on the farm, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 30 large-scale fruit and vegetable producers attended the conference, as did commercial buyers for grocery markets, restaurants and wholesale and foodservice outlets.
Although cleanliness in produce handling is essential to help protect public health, Theuri noted producers should not wash certain fruits and vegetables prior to their marketing. He cited strawberries as an example.
“Don’t wash strawberries,” he said. “That makes them mushy. Washing them is up to the consumer to do.” (His listeners chuckled.)
Theuri also cited the incident of the salmonella-contaminated cantaloupe that sickened nearly 200 people in 21 states in 2012, and was blamed for two deaths. Chamberlain Farms in southwestern Indiana was the source of at least some of the contaminated fruit, he said.
Consumers were advised at the time to throw away any uneaten melons grown there. Cantaloupe from other farms was deemed safe to eat if washed well first, and clean knives and forks were used in cutting and serving.
“The source of the salmonella contamination was traced back to unsanitary water,” Theuri said. “The problem is, after a food outbreak like this with the cantaloupe, no one wants to eat that food any more, irregardless (sic) of where it came from.”
He identified critical control points in the handling of produce intended for human consumption, such as washing hands before handling fruit like apples, cherries and grapes, and washing (some of) the fruit itself. He also recommended for reading the informational release entitled Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Grower’s Guide.
He spoke of the national collaboration by the USDA-Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (USDA-CSREES) to promote GAPs among fruit and vegetables producers.
“GAP lists the steps to prevent microbacterial contamination in fresh produce,” Theuri said, in naming the three major factors that can contribute to contamination on the farm. These are manure management, water source and usage and farm workers’ health and hygiene.
Addressing these factors before planting, during production and in harvest and post-harvest handling can minimize the risk of contamination. He noted the importance of growers maintaining detailed records that document manure use, water test results, worker training programs and implementation of a trace-back system. The system would trace the route of the produce from distribution to its origin and packing date.
“The major source of contamination is animal and human feces. The process of washing produce should be carried out in clean, uncontaminated water. Ultraviolet light sterilizes, but it also affects the quality of the food,” Theuri said.
“Water is critical to all phases of produce handling. Water contamination sources are rivers, lakes and streams and wellheads. It takes 120 days for microbiotics contamination of food to break down.”
Sanitation includes paying attention to details involving employees, equipment and transportation.
“Covering produce reduces the chance of contamination,” he said. “Adequate records make the difference of staying in business or being shut down. Growers and packers should learn about the risks – who are the enemy.”
In summary, Theuri noted GAP is a voluntary program, a set of production guidelines to reduce likelihood of microbial or other contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables. The focus is on using safe techniques and inputs on all levels of the farm-to-fork food chain.
“Food safety is the issue,” he concluded. “You want to keep people healthy, and also continue the competitiveness of Illinois products.”
Welcome and introductions came from Chad Miller, manager of the Kankakee County Farm Bureau, and Cynthia Haskins of the Illinois Farm Bureau. The Kankakee conference was the first of three; other Meet the Buyer conferences are at Heartland Community College in Normal on Feb. 26, and the DeKalb County Farm Bureau in Sycamore on March 6.
Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., with one-on-one afternoon breakout sessions between producers and buyers. Farmers may attend at no cost, but must register by calling Heartland at 309-663-6497, or DeKalb Farm Bureau at 815-756-6361.