Many people shop at farmers markets looking for locally grown food and often assume that being farm fresh, the produce is safe to eat as is. However it is important to understand the food safety practices that farmers should be following to maintain freshness and to prevent bacterial contamination.
It is the responsibility of everyone to be knowledgeable about safe, fresh food, not just the farmer. Food safety rules have become more stringent and many larger farms will now have to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which outlines specific criteria for both fresh produce and processed food. If you have a favorite large producer you will probably begin in the next few years to see some type of evidence that they are FSMA compliant. Small farmers may not have to comply with FSMA depending on their annual income from farm produce and instead might advertise that they are GAP certified, which means that they have been audited by a third party and found to be compliant in following Good Agricultural Practices. These practices (whether FSMA or GAP) are primarily designed to prevent contamination, and to encourage good record keeping so that a trace-back is possible if any produce is found to be contaminated.
As a consumer, you may want to know what they should be doing to keep your food safe! The following are a few things to look for when you are visiting a farm or farmers market:
• Produce should not be touching the ground, use baskets to harvest. Any "basket" that can be sanitized can be used but make sure they do not touch the ground either—they should be placed on top of another basket or on a DIY support (for example made from PVC).
• Harvest containers should be washed after each use!
• Only use food grade chlorine, at 10ppm, should be used to sanitize produce.
• A chlorine bath dip can be used for sanitizing. Any container that is not porous can be used, i.e. bucket, rubbish can, bathtub.
• Wash water needs to be colder than the product temperature.
• Test strips should be used to check and verify ppm regularly during washing.
• Produce should not be sorted on the ground, use a table.
• Harvesting tools must also be sanitized at each use.
• Storage and transport-new boxes should be used each time, or if re-using boxes food grade liners must be used.
• Product should be chilled as quickly as possible and kept cold until it’s at market.
• Field sanitation: keep animals out!
• Pick up discarded produce, do not leave in the field.
• Nothing should be sold with animal waste on it, i.e. bird droppings.
• As a consumer, you should be aware that anything labeled as "ready to eat" should still be washed by you before you eat it!
Food safety practices can be difficult to implement all at once, which is why FSMA compliance is stretched out over a few years. Many farms will have to invest heavily to comply with the regulations, and even complying with GAP to pass an audit can be costly to small farmers. That’s why it is so important to support small farmers and larger producers who are doing their best to keep your food safe from farm to table!
Melissa Zeman currently manages the Hawai'i Agriculture Foundation (HAF) Ag Park at Kunia.
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