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Smart Gardening in 2020: Quick Tips for Safe Produce

Cantaloupe plant with fruit blossoms. Photo: Gail Hudson, UMN Extension Communications

In 2020 and Beyond: Food Safety is becoming a priority

All you have to do is look at:

The bad: Another year, another E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce. Bad news!

The good: Most farmers have excellent food safety practices, and the vast majority of our food supply - including fresh produce - is quite safe to eat.

The ugly: It's not only "big farms" that make food safety mistakes. Did you know that even in your own garden, you could still make someone sick by using poor food safety practices? It's true!

So, in 2020 and the new decade onward, take a few basic steps that will reduce the risk that nasty pathogens - bacteria, viruses and parasites that can make people sick - will hitch a ride on your fresh produce.

1) Wash your hands before harvesting fresh produce.

Many of us remember to wash our hands before preparing food in our kitchens, but what about touching food in the garden? Think of the garden as an extension of the kitchen - and outdoor kitchen, perhaps - but a place where food grows.

I like to remember to "do unto others' food as you would have them do unto yours", which includes ALWAYS washing your hands before picking fresh produce for someone else to eat.

In a community, church, or school garden, you can make a portable, outdoor handwashing station to ensure that all harvesters have clean hands. Just remember to keep it stocked with drinkable water for washing, soap and paper towels.

You'll also want a bucket to catch dirty water (don't let it puddle on the ground or run into the garden - yuck!), and a trash bin or bag for dirty paper towels.

Portable handwashing!
Container filled with drinkable water, soap, paper towels,
 a bucket for dirty water, and a trash can. Ta-da! Photo: Anne Sawyer

2) Watch for droppings!

Gross, but true. Because our gardens are outside, passing critters such as birds, mice, raccoons, dogs or others, may leave "evidence" of having been in our gardens.

Animals can carry germs that make people really sick, so it's important that you NEVER pick anything with feces (poop), nibble marks, scratches, fur, or other evidence of animals.

Once germs from animals get onto fresh produce, it's impossible to remove all of them - even with washing. Germs are too small for us to see, so you'll never know if you "got it all off."

Furthermore, germs "stick" to produce - they actually adhere themselves to the surface by secreting protective carbohydrate layers. And lots of produce has rough surfaces where germs can hide - think lettuce, cantaloupe, or strawberries. Better to be safe than sorry!

The deer have nibbled and trampled on this lettuce - what a bummer!
You would NOT want to pick this - deer carry germs 
such as E. coli that can make people very sick. 
Photo: Anne Sawyer

3) Use clean water.

Dirty water can quickly spread germs. Always use clean, drinkable water for washing produce, washing hands, and washing tools and equipment. It's best to use clean, drinkable water for irrigation, too - especially if the water touches the edible portion of the crop, such as tomatoes, lettuces, or even carrots.

Using rain barrel water for irrigation can be very risky - lots of birds, squirrels, and other animals can contaminate roof runoff with feces. It's best to use rain barrel water for non-edible crops. If you have questions about using rain barrel water on edible crops, contact Extension for more information.

4) Wash your harvest tools and containers regularly.

Would you eat out of a dirty bowl? Nope. Same for harvesting fresh produce into dirty containers - yuck! It's best to harvest into containers that can be cleaned and occasionally sanitized to keep germs from building up over time. Containers that cannot be washed - such as wooden or wicker baskets - should be avoided when harvesting produce.

Harvest containers should be washed with regular dish detergent at the beginning of the season and as needed if they get visibly dirty throughout the season. Remember that you are putting food into these containers, so keep them clean. Same goes for harvest tools such as knives, scissors, or clippers.

You can make a simple sanitizing solution with regular, unscented, household bleach (5.25-6% sodium hypochlorite): Add 1/2 tsp bleach per quart of water in a spray bottle. Spray containers and tools after washing and let air dry. Remember that sanitizer only works on clean surfaces - you must wash before sanitizing, or the dirt will bind with the sanitizer and take away all of the germ-killing power. Learn more about cleaning and sanitizing here.

Want to learn more?

These are just a few tips to enhance your garden food safety. Anytime you are growing food for other people, you should consider ways to reduce risks. Know that these recommendations are not unique to home gardeners; commercial growers do all of these things - and much more - to ensure that our fresh produce is as safe as possible. We call these actions GAPs, or Good Agricultural Practices, which are science-based practices shown to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses from fresh produce.

For more information about produce safety, visit Extension's GAPs Education Program page.

Author: Anne Sawyer, PhD. Extension Educator, On-Farm Food Safety
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