by James Cooper, CFSA’s Local Produce Safety Coordinator

veggie standProduce contamination at the farm level can come from many different sources, including but not limited to: water, wildlife, livestock, soil amendments, and humans. Regardless of whether or not you are seeking Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) certification or are required to be compliant with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), every farmer and their employees should understand the important role proper health and hygiene has on food safety and the health of your customers.

There are two main ways humans can transfer pathogens to produce; either by human contact with other humans, produce, or soil or improper sanitation. You should have written policies and train all employees on good hygiene and hand washing practices, first aid procedures, properly using the restroom facilities, and illness and injury procedures.

Signs with pictures of good practices are a great way to remind employees of these practices. These should be displayed in areas where applicable and be in multiple languages if you have non-English speaking employees. Training should be documented and kept up to date, i.e., all new employees should be trained, and it probably doesn’t heart to train everyone at least once a year.

Washing hands might seem like an obvious thing to do. However, since hands are a major source of human pathogens, you should make sure what is obvious to you is obvious to your employees and those visiting your farm, especially if they are there conducting an audit. Employees who are handling or packaging produce need to be washing their hands constantly. Ok, maybe not constantly, but before beginning or returning to work, after using the bathroom, smoking, or taking a break, before and after eating, after doing ANYTHING other than handling produce, and ANYTIME their hands become dirty. So, like we said, constantly.

The hand washing facility should have LIQUID soap. We know you want to use the bar soap you traded veggies for from the vendor next to you at the farmers market, but you can’t. Employees should be encouraged to scrub the surface of their hands and arms vigorously for 20 seconds. How long is 20 seconds? Long enough to sing one round of happy birthday to the dirt they are washing off their hands, in between their fingers, and under their fingernails.  You should provide single-use paper towels because, come on, how often are you going to wash cloth towels in August when you have 5 million other things to do?

Gloves can be a good way to prevent cross-contamination and should be used any time an employee has any cuts, burns, or open wounds on their hands. However, they do not replace the need for hand washing and, if used improperly, can aid in the contamination of produce. Disposable gloves should be thrown away whenever they may have become contaminated, for example, after taking out the trash, handling livestock, chemicals, or picking up items from the floor. Non-disposable gloves should be washed and sanitized before each use or after they have come into contact with a possible contaminant.

You should have a policy in place that requires employees to come to work reasonably clean and in clean clothes. Personal items such as food and drinks should be kept in a locker or break room, and eating, drinking, or smoking should only be allowed in designated areas away from production, processing, and equipment storage areas.

It is important to discuss worker health with your employees, family members, and anyone else coming into contact with your produce to make sure they understand your policies. Because viruses and bacteria can easily be transferred from human to produce to human it is imperative to have a policy in place that requires employees to report when they are sick to you or their supervisor before beginning work. Policies should reassure employees that they will not lose their job if they report an illness. Therefore your policy should state that you will provide non-produce handling tasks for sick employees; that way, they will be comfortable reporting when they are sick because they will know they will not lose a day (s) worth of pay.

Once employees understand what your policies are and the reasons behind them continued, communication and training should be conducted to ensure that employees are following proper procedures. Training should be conducted annually and immediately upon hiring new employees.

For more information on GAPs certification, contact CFSA or visit our GAPs Consulting page.

For more information on FSMA visit our website.