In late October, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) published a new guidance document, Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. While all guidance is voluntary, the document provides beneficial recommendations to help produce growers address microbial food safety hazards and good agricultural and management practices. Because of the diversity of agricultural practices and commodities, the recommendations are fairly general, so they will be most effective when adapted to each grower’s specific operation. Additionally, the guidance includes recommendations for the growing, harvesting, washing, sorting, packing and transporting of fruits and vegetables, but this article focuses in on the last two: summarizing the packing and transport recommendations.
Packing facility sanitation. Poor sanitation in the packing area can significantly increase the risk of contamination of the produce or the water used on the produce. Pathogens can be found almost anywhere in the facility — from floors and drains to equipment and food-contact surfaces — and be a source of microbial contamination. Following are 10 recommendations for sanitation practices to protect against potential hazards in packing operations:
- Remove as much dirt and mud from fresh produce as is practical outside the packing facility or area.
- Clean and sanitize pallets, containers or bins before using to transport fresh produce, especially ready-to-eat produce.
- Inspect containers regularly and repair or discard any that are damaged.
- Store cleaned and new packing materials and containers so as to protect them from contamination by pests, dirt or condensation.
- Ensure equipment and lines used in sorting, grading, washing and packing fresh produce are cleanable; break down as needed for thorough cleaning and sanitizing.
- Remove mud and debris from processing equipment daily.
- Clean and inspect knives, saws, blades, boots, gloves, smocks and aprons; replace as needed.
- Clean packing areas at end of each day.
- Keep storage areas and facilities maintained: remove visible debris, soil, dirt and unnecessary items regularly; clean on a regularly scheduled and “as needed” basis; and take steps to minimize free-floating dust and other airborne contaminants.
- Maintain the cooling system to ensure proper functioning; inspect equipment daily, remove debris and clean during use as needed.
Packing facility pest control. Because pests can spread disease and damage produce, an integrated pest management program should be established to include sanitation and exclusion:
- Keep the grounds around packing areas clear of waste, litter, improperly stored garbage, old/inoperative equipment, etc.; keep grasses cut so as to not attract pests.
- Clean the area daily to remove product or product remnants that attract pests.
- Maintain adequate surface drainage to reduce pest breeding sites.
- Regularly inspect all facilities for evidence of pests or their contamination. Minimize the availability of food and water to pests.
- Remove dead or trapped birds, insects, rodents and other pests promptly to ensure clean and sanitary facilities and avoid attracting additional pests.
- Clean any surfaces soiled by pests or other wildlife.
- Eliminate pest nesting and harborage areas as much as possible.
- Exclude pests from facilities by blocking access, such as holes in walls, doors, flooring, etc., as well as vents. Consider the use of screens, wind curtains and traps.
- Maintain a pest control log that includes inspection dates, reports and steps taken to eliminate any problems.
- Establish frequent monitoring of affected and treated areas to assess your program’s effectiveness.
Transportation. Because proper transport of fresh produce from farm to market will help reduce the potential for microbial contamination, it is the responsibility of everyone in the transportation chain to communicate on and take responsibility for maintaining the quality and safety of the produce. Cross-contamination from other foods, nonfoods and surfaces can occur during loading, unloading, storage and transportation, so wherever produce is transported and handled, the sanitation conditions should be evaluated. Sanitation requirements that should be maintained at each step include:
- Ensure all transportation vehicles are kept maintained and cleaned.
- Before loading produce, inspect trucks and/or transport cartons for cleanliness, odors and obvious dirt or debris.
- Ensure any prior load carried in the transport vehicle would not cause a contamination risk. For example, a truck that recently transported animals or animal products would increase the risk of contaminating fresh produce if not well-cleaned before produce is loaded.
- Maintain proper temperatures for both quality and safety of fresh produce.
- Ensure transporters are aware of temperature requirements and work with operators to ensure adequate temperature control from loading to receiving.
- Avoid mixed loads with incompatible refrigeration requirements.
- Load produce in trucks or transport cartons so as to minimize damage and reduce the potential for contamination.
- Ensure loading allows proper refrigerated air circulation.
- Ensure workers involved in the loading/unloading during transport practice good hygiene and sanitation practices.
- Product inspectors, buyers and other visitors should also comply with established hygienic practices, such as thoroughly washing their hands before inspecting produce.
While adapting the recommendations to your operation, it is important to remember that this guidance addresses only microbial hazards, not other areas of concern (such as pesticide residue, etc.). Although there are no current technologies that can completely eliminate all food safety hazards of fresh produce that will be eaten raw, integrating these and other preventive strategies into your packing and transportation practices will help to reduce the potential for contamination and protect your consumers and your brand.