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Post-Harvest Handling & Sanitation

General Postharvest Handling & Sanitation Information

Sanitation on the farm, with the aim of preventing harvested produce from becoming contaminated, begins with general good housekeeping practices. Some general good practices to follow on your farm include:

  • Training workers on personal hygiene and cleanliness (see our Worker Health, Hygiene, and Training page for more information)
  • Keep it clean: sweep, pick up trash, and remove cull piles from buildings at least daily.
  • Separate produce handling areas from other farm activities (tractor repair/storage, pesticide mixing, equipment storage, etc)
  • Provide proper toilet and handwashing facilities and break areas for employees and farm visitors (see Worker Health, Hygiene, and Training section for more information)
  • Minimize standing water. Bacteria thrive and multiply in water, so standing water, both in the field and in farm buildings, can act as a significant source of contamination. If you’re building a new pack house, design drainage systems to prevent water from pooling anywhere. If water regularly pools in existing pack houses, take measures to regularly clear that water – sweep/mop/squeegee the water out of the area regularly. If your packing area is outside, be sure that area drains well. A gravel pad can help with drainage and soil splash.
  • Establish pest management programs. See “General guidelines for pest management within farm buildings” section below for specific recommendations. Overall, it is important that any pest management program be substantial and effective, or modified if they are not effective. You may need to hire a pest control company.
  • Wash and Packroom Setup DiagramDesign your wash and packhouse layout to prevent contamination. Wash and packhouse flow should move from dirty to clean, without overlapping routes. Layouts that are U- or L-shaped (see diagram) are good designs. These layouts ensure that clean, fresh produce won’t come into contact with potential contaminants coming in from other produce, truck tires, workers shoes, or other sources. Clearly label tools and equipment that is used for specific tasks so that there’s no mistaking, for example, which containers are for bringing out to the field and which are for packing clean produce.

Infrastructure changes involving food safety can be expensive. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources has annual grant funding available through the Agricultural Food Safety Improvement Program. See their website for more information.

See "Additional Resources" at the bottom of this page for the Produce Packshed Design for Safety & Efficiency video series from the University of Vermont.

Good business practices support financial viability and farm food safety. General organization, good recordkeeping and effective communication and labor management are all essential for any business to succeed. Organization and efficiency are also key to preventing and managing produce contamination. The concept of “lean” in production deals with minimizing waste while maintaining productivity. Originating in the automobile industry, the concept can be applied to agriculture as well. Some suggestions for further reading on lean farming and farm business management that can also lead to improved farm food safety practices:

Cleaning & sanitizing:

In addition to general cleanliness, it is important to know how to clean and 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 and sanitize “secondary” surfaces that may indirectly contact food or food contact surfaces. 

Cleaning and sanitizing refer to separate actions. Cleaning refers to 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 or eliminate microorganisms. A dirty surface cannot be sanitized – cleaning always comes first.

Cleaning and sanitizing is a four-step process:

  1. Remove any obvious dirt or debris from the surface
  2. Apply detergent and scrub. Detergents should be appropriate for use on food contact surfaces.
  3. Rinse the surface with clean water to remove soil and detergent.
  4. Apply sanitizer approved for use on food contact surfaces. Rinse if required by label. 

If allowed to grow on a surface, bacteria will create biofilms, which are layers of bacteria and excreted substances that allow bacterial colonies to stick onto a surface. Biofilms mostly consist of non-pathogenic bacteria, but act as sticky harbors for any passing pathogenic bacterial cell to attach to and reproduce in. If biofilms are established, it increases the likelihood that pathogenic bacteria will remain on a surface and proliferate, and so it is important to avoid the formation of biofilms on harvest, wash, and pack equipment by cleaning plant debris and soil off of equipment daily. Hard-to-clean surfaces (like wood or surfaces with bumpy seams) should be cleaned and sanitized more frequently than easy-to-clean surfaces. Routine use of sanitizers can help prevent the buildup of biofilms.

Detergents/cleaners do not need to be labeled for food contact surfaces to be used on your farm. For organic operations, detergents/cleaners do not need to be organic. Sanitizers are pesticides and must be labeled for use on food contact surfaces, and organic operations are limited to using sanitizers with specific active ingredients. See the resources below for organic sanitizer options.

General guidelines for pest management within farm buildings:

  • Place traps and bait stations strategically. Check traps and restock bait stations frequently.
  • Inspect walls, doors, windows for holes and cracks, and fix any found.
  • Deter birds with nets or spikes.
  • Keep doors and windows closed as much as possible.
  • Cut grass around building.
  • Remove cull piles and garbage from buildings at least every day or as needed.
  • Keep produce covered when possible.
  • Don’t use bait inside packing areas.
  • Store pallets of produce at least 1 foot from walls to aid in visual inspection and trap monitoring, or be sure they are easily moveable to aid in inspection.
  • Put your pest control plans in writing and keep records of when traps are checked, baits are replaced, or other pest management activities are completed.

Resources

Bait Stations for Controlling Rats and Mice - University of Missouri Extension

Controling Birds Around Farm Buildings - PennState Extension

Rodent-Proof Construction: Drains and Pipes - University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension

Rodent-Proof Construction: Structural - University of Nebrasca-Lincoln Extension

Chemical and Physical Contamination

Microbial contamination is not the only concern on farms. Chemical and physical contamination can also pose risks in wash and pack houses. Chemicals like pesticides, detergents, and sanitizers or physical contaminants like broken glass, wood or metal splinters, or nuts and bolts that accidentally end up in wash water or on clean produce can also pose serious threats to public health. While FSMA does not include requirements regarding chemical or physical contamination, other food safety certification programs may include such requirements, and other legislation (Worker Protection Standards, pesticide legislation, etc) includes relevant regulations.

To prevent chemical and physical contamination of produce:

  • Keep cleaning and sanitizing products and pesticides in separate, clearly labeled locations.
  • Keep Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for any chemical you have on the farm on site in case of an emergency. SDS can be found on chemical company websites for any cleaner, pesticide, or other chemical, and contain information about what to do if the product is ingested.
  • Use only food-grade lubricants, oils, and chemicals, according to their labeled use.
  • Use equipment made of food-grade materials that will not leach into produce.
  • Screen or cover overhead lights or replace with shatterproof fixtures.
  • Set a schedule to check bearings and metal parts of machines.
  • Keep packing materials and produce covered whenever possible.

FSMA: Postharvest Handling & Sanitation

The FSMA Produce Rule does not include many explicit requirements for this section. However, the rule does include several nonprescriptive requirements without detailing how growers are supposed to meet those requirements. We have included recommendations for how to meet such requirements in this section. To distinguish explicit FSMA requirements from our recommendations, explicit FSMA requirements are written in bold font in this section. Normal text represents recommendations or additional information.


Several topics in this section refer to “covered” versus “exempt” produce. See the explanation of covered versus exempt produce on our FSMA Information page.

Produce Packshed Design: Expanding to accommodate business growth at Jericho Settler's Farm
Produce Packshed Design: Renovating an old dairy barn to a year round packshed at High Meadows Farm
Produce Packshed Design: Building a small-scale open packshed on leased land at Flywheel Farm