Leafy Greens and Food Safety: New Guidelines Include Public Cooperation

Mrs. Garcia came into our office the other day and, in a bit of a huff. "Kurt, they want to put up fiberglass panels along our horse corrals. I've lived here for over 25 years and I never..." It became immediately clear that the food safety ripple-effect had hit more than just those involved in production agriculture in our area. Most people do not think about food safety around the home until a food-related illness affects them or a family member. However, the tenuous relationship between the safe production of vegetables and the risk of an unintentional contribution to a foodborne illness comes full circle when a homeowner is involved. This is of concern in our rapidly growing city due, in part, to the large influx of new residents during the last few years and the possible lack of understanding the nature of vegetable production today.

Based on the overall consumption of fresh produce, most foodborne illness is more likely to arise from contamination that takes place during food preparation and storage. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that outbreaks linked to fresh produce from specific production areas have occurred and have impacted a large number of people. Yuma area producers have never been linked, in any way, to a leafy green contamination event. Yet, they are fully aware that the environments surrounding a home may not be free from concerns for potential contamination by human pathogens. Some elements of these urban agricultural situations may increase the risk from some sources of contamination.

Many pathogens cause problems with fresh produce. E. coli O157:H7, however, is of particular concern because only a few cells are needed to cause illness. The illness can progress quickly to cause severe consequences in susceptible people, particularly young children and the elderly. Also, E. coli O157:H7 is quite hardy. It can survive for extended periods in water and soil, under frozen and refrigerated temperatures, and in dry conditions. The organism’s low infectious dose, survival under adverse conditions, and potential for extreme disease severity require successful prevention approaches. As a result, local producers are seeking strategies that focus on reducing and eliminating the microorganism, before a possible contamination event occurs. Preventing microbial contamination at all steps, from production to consumption, is much more effective than efforts to “clean the produce up” after it’s been contaminated. The following list provides some friendly reminders for those of us who live in close proximity to a produce field.

• It is not possible to eliminate all animal influences from agricultural environments. However, consider steps to minimize their presence or activities, especially those in close proximity to a field under cultivation.
• Make sure that any septic system is properly installed and maintained. Faulty septic systems and poorly designed drain fields have been attributed to foodborne illness or pathogen infections and such leakage could spread to adjacent fields.
• Local growers are looking to provide for production areas with the least potential for contamination from fresh manure. The fields should be as far away as possible from animal pens (pets or livestock) and from manure or compost piles.
• Where fields are close to pens or manure piles, producers might inquire about preventing rainfall or irrigation runoff from flowing onto their field or manure particulate from blowing in during periods of high wind.
• Producers are on the lookout for animals in a field. Please remember to keep pets, domestic animals, and livestock out of fields under cultivation. This will prevent these animals from depositing fecal material in a field and will exclude direct contact of manure with vegetables.
• Wherever water comes into contact with fresh produce, its quality may directly determine the potential for pathogen contamination and its persistence. If your property is uphill to a produce field, growers might check for manure contamination in runoff water.
• Become informed about proper home compost management for pathogen reduction, especially when using any animal manure.

Food safety awareness is the essential tool for designing and implementing solutions to preventing foodborne illness. Once produce is contaminated, removing or killing the pathogens is very difficult and cooperation among those involved is key. Thanks Mrs. Garcia and others like you. Working together will continue to ensure that our Yuma grown vegetables safe and nutritious.

Kurt Nolte is an area agriculture agent with the Yuma County Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at 928-726-3904.