Fruit crops may be contaminated with various food safety hazards during growing, harvest, postharvest handling, and distribution. Cultural practices to reduce the likelihood of these hazards affecting human health are best integrated directly into day-to-day production practices. Hazards can be physical (choking hazards from sticks or rocks), chemical (pesticide residues that exceed tolerance levels), or biological (illness causing microorganisms).
Good agricultural practices, or GAPs, are practices that are effective in reducing food safety hazards during all stages of production. This section will primarily focus on the cultural practices that prevent human pathogen hazards (biological) from being transferred onto fruit crops. Implementing cultural practices to prevent physical and chemical hazards from occurring is also important and was either handled in other sections (e.g. appropriate pesticide use) or will be briefly discussed in this section.
In the case of human pathogen hazards (e.g. viruses, bacteria and parasites), contamination can occur through direct contact with contaminated water, soil, containers, equipment, or employees. Fresh fruit is frequently eaten raw and so preventing crops from coming into contact with these organisms is the best way to prevent foodborne illness from occurring.
Federal and state regulations now require certain standards for the growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce for human consumption. These standards known as the Produce Safety Rule also focus on microbiological hazards (pathogens) and align with the widely recognized Good Agricultural Practices noted above. The New England state agriculture agencies listed below implement the Produce Safety Rule requirements. Refer to the FDA’s Final Rule on Produce Safety and contact your state Extension or responsible regulatory agency for more information on the specific requirements or to find out whether your farm is subject to these standards.
Connecticut: Connecticut Department of Agriculture
Massachusetts: Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources
New Hampshire: New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets, and Food
Rhode Island: Rhode Island Department of Health
Efforts to prevent contamination of fruit from microbiological hazards focus on the following Good Agricultural Practices.
Employee Hygiene and Training
Teach employees about microbial risks on the farm and the importance of good hygiene. Provide and maintain clean restrooms in or near the field and in food handling areas. Supply soap, clean water and single-use towels for hand washing and enforce their use. Make sure policies are understood, and if necessary, deliver trainings in workers’ native languages. Model good behavior and the standards and expectations you have for employees.
Educate employees with the information they need for their particular job regarding good agricultural practices. An employee who only harvests berries will need different information than an employee who works full time in the wash/pack area. Ensure that employees know how to identify potentially contaminated fruit or food contact surfaces (do not harvest berries with feces or that have dropped to the ground) and know what to do if produce becomes contaminated or if they or another employee is sick.
Harvest / Postharvest Handling and Sanitation
Check that all harvest containers are clean and in good repair. Clean and sanitize harvest bins prior to the harvest season and clean bins regularly during harvest. Only use single-use containers once. Ensure that all food contact surfaces, the wash-pack area, and storage area are kept clean and organized so that they don’t become an area that harbors pathogens that could be transferred to fruit.
Keep produce handling areas separate from other farm activities such as tractor repairs, pesticide mixing, or employee break areas. Do not store sanitizers and other chemicals where they could contaminate produce. Bacteria survive and grow in water, so allow equipment to dry and minimize standing water with good drainage and/or by routinely clearing pooled water. If the packing area is outside, be sure that the area drains well. A gravel pad can help with drainage and soil splash. Keep pests from entering produce wash, pack, and storage areas and establish a pest management program, if necessary.
In addition to general cleanliness, it is important to know how to clean and, when necessary, sanitize tools, equipment, and surfaces effectively. While cleaning and sanitizing should be focused on food contact surfaces—any surface that comes into physical contact with produce—you should also clean “secondary” surfaces that may indirectly contact food or food contact surfaces. Cleaning and sanitizing refer to separate actions. Cleaning is the physical removal of dirt and organic matter from surfaces, using water and a detergent. Sanitizing is the treatment of a cleaned surface to reduce bacterial pathogens to a level considered safe as judged by public health entities. A dirty surface cannot be sanitized—cleaning always comes first.
Promote Good Hygiene for U-Pick Customers
Provide clean and convenient restrooms for all U-pick customers. Supply soap, clean water, and single-use towels and encourage their use. Discourage visitors from coming to your farm when they are sick.
Keep Produce Cool
Cool fruit quickly to minimize growth of potential pathogens. See Postharvest Handling and Storage for practices that help to maintain good quality; these same practices will also minimize human pathogen growth and transfer.
Food safety risks regarding soil amendments generally involve raw manure, or other untreated animal-based soil amendments. All animal-based soil amendments can contain pathogenic microorganisms if they are not processed in a way that kills such pathogens. If you use composted manure on your farm, you need to ensure that the manure is composted correctly and fully. Otherwise, it should be used as raw manure.
In the fall, if applying manure to land in food production, do so preferably when soils are warm (over 50ºF), non-saturated, and cover-cropped. The rest of the year, incorporate manure whenever possible. Maximize the time between application of manure and harvest—a good guideline is the USDA National Organic Program standard of a 90-day interval for crops that do not touch the soil and 120 days for crops that do. Keep records of all manure and fertilizer application rates, source, and dates. Avoid planting root or leafy crops if manure is applied in spring.
Never side-dress food crops with fresh solid manure, slurry manure, manure 'tea' or any mulches containing fresh manure. However, it is ok to side-dress with stabilized compost.
A stabilized compost is one that has followed a biological treatment process to meet microbial standards for detectable amounts of bacteria (including Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella spp., fecal coliforms, and E. coli 0157:H7). FDA has validated both a turned and static composting treatment process. If these processes are followed there is no need to test the compost for microbial organisms. If you do not have records or certification that compost was properly treated to control pathogens, handle it like raw manure and observe the suggested 90-120 day application interval.
Wildlife, Domesticated Animals, & Land Use
Animals on fruit farms can pose food safety concerns because they can carry certain human pathogens (e.g., Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli) and can spread those pathogens through fecal matter directly to produce in fields, or indirectly through water sources. Avoid grazing or housing livestock near produce fields and keep pets out of production areas. Assess risks posed by livestock on adjacent land and also review the land history for prior use and possible applications of sludge. Note: Sludge can be a potential source of environmental contaminants (such as PFAS and other chemical hazards) as well as a source of microbiological contamination.
It is impossible to exclude all wildlife from produce fields but minimize wild and domestic animal traffic by use of fences and other means. Consider berms to prevent runoff entering a produce field. Have a plan for how you will manage contamination when it happens. Never harvest produce that is contaminated with animal feces or from flood waters.
Only use water of adequate microbial quality during production and postharvest activities. See the Water section for more information on agriculture water quality.
Farm Food Safety Plans
Accurate recordkeeping and documentation of practices ensure that the risk management strategies described above are done consistently and effectively. There are many recordkeeping templates available through resources such as the Produce Safety Alliance or Extension programs. A farm food safety plan helps growers compile relevant food safety documents such as risk assessments, standard operating procedures, training information and record keeping logs. A food safety plan may also be required by buyers or third-party audit programs.
A traceability program allows supply chain entities to trace produce one step forward and one step back within the distribution chain in order to quickly respond in the case of a foodborne illness incident. For growers, tracking produce requires defining a “lot” (distinct production of a crop) and creating a code for identifying that lot. Lot codes should be a unique code and would typically include the following information: farm, crop and variety name, field or harvested block, and the harvest and packing date. This code helps identify a particular lot once it has been sold.
The FDA’s Food Traceability Final Rule requires that supply chain entities keep traceability records for designated foods. Small fruit (berries) are not a designated food and thus growers of these crops are not subject to the requirements.
- UMass Extension Food Safety for Farmers - https://ag.umass.edu/resources/food-safety/food-safety- for-farmers
- Produce Safety Alliance at Cornell University - https://producesafetyalliance.cornell.edu/
- A practical GAPs self-assessment for farms, with worksheets that can be printed out from Cornell University's GAP Program - https://cals.cornell.edu/national-good-agricultural-practices-program/re...
- Wholesale Success: A Farmer’s Guide to Food Safety, Selling, Postharvest Handling, and Packing Produce. Fifth Edition. https://goodfoodfarmertraining.org/programs/#section3