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Wednesday, 7 February 2024, David Kennedy and Malcolm Laidlaw, Specialist Food Safety Consultants, Fresh Produce Training & Development
When someone mentions a food poisoning outbreak, most people would immediately think of poorly cooked chicken on a BBQ or something similar. In the 1980s and 90s, the first culprits on most investigators hit list would be meat and dairy. Fresh produce wasn’t considered a significant risk.
This started to change in the early 2000s, when some sizable food poisoning outbreaks were linked to fresh produce consumption. Consequentially several farm assurance schemes started to address the microbiological contamination risks associated with fresh produce and retailers became aware of the risks posed, in particular with ready to eat / minimally processed crops.
Over the past 20 years or so, there have been a significant number of food safety outbreaks that have since been associated with fresh produce. Some examples are listed below:
When we start to look at the risks associated with fresh produce, we need to approach this with a different mindset, closer to that of a factory technical person.
Often fresh produce will be grown in open fields. There will be birds flying overhead, roosting on pylons and cables, wildlife, rodents, and insects present in the cropping environments (the focus on biodiversity and sustainability has increased the amount of wildlife on farms), not to mention what is in the soil, from both a microbial and chemical nature. We also must bear in mind that allergens such as nut trees and celery or cereals containing gluten will be found in the vicinity of the fields.
Add in the potential weather impacts which can cause flooding of fields, brining chemical, physical and microbial contamination of the crops. Hot humid conditions can cause bacterial rots and fungal diseases to proliferate. And while these may not be a direct cause of an outbreak, they damage the crops allowing pathogens to enter the crops easier.
These issues are unlikely to go away – in fact with what we are seeing in terms of climate change and the increasing number of extreme weather events, the risks of a product being contaminated by food pathogens is increasing.
This is before we start to look at the actions of people. As the field will have limited security measures in place, trespassing is a possibility. Then, probably one of the biggest risks of all is the hygiene of harvesting staff when crops are hand harvested. How often have you thought about where you go to a toilet in a field without contaminating the crop?
As you can see from the above the normal way of thinking about food safety is not always relevant. To this end, Fresh Produce Training & Development joined forces with CIEH, to develop the first Level 2 Food Safety Training specifically for fresh produce. To make it even more specific, there are two different courses available – one for field staff and the other for packhouse staff.
Rather than taking an existing course and adapting it, we designed content specifically based on what staff need to know to minimise the risks from contamination in the field / packhouse. This approach means the courses cover microbiological risks from manure, animals, and water, through to staff and equipment hygiene. We look at physical risks from the raw materials (soil and stones), field debris, equipment and people. Chemical risks such as pesticides, heavy metals and cleaning chemicals are included.
We also consider the risks from allergens in the field. This can be from nut trees and previous crops, as well as staff activities.
There is also information on how to reduce the risks from these hazards. While it would be impossible to eliminate the hazard completely from the fresh produce supply chain, risk assessing prior to planting, and good hygiene controls through the crop growing and harvesting process will significantly reduce the risk of contamination of the crop.
To find out more about the Food Safety for farm workers online training courses, get in touch with our training experts. You can also find out more about Fresh Produce Training & Development by visiting our website.