The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule (PSR) has introduced required practices for harvest, postharvest handling, and sanitation. Focusing on sanitation practices is important for reducing food safety risks in fresh produce operations. Adopting good postharvest practices will reduce food safety risks, as well as contribute to maintaining produce quality and reducing postharvest decay.
To understand what risks may be present, an assessment of the packing and produce handling area should be completed. Any surface that the produce touches may serve as a source of contamination. Such surfaces include equipment, belts, rollers, brushes, tables, bins, sinks, tools, and even the hands of workers. Surfaces that contact produce (food contact surfaces) must be able to be inspected, maintained, cleaned and preferably, sanitized (1).
Areas within the packing and handling area can be broken into zones to help determine the likelihood of direct contact with the produce you are handling.
- Zone 1: Direct food contact surfaces such as conveyors, belts, brushes, rollers, sorting tables, racks, utensils, harvest/storage bins, and worker hands. This zone is the biggest concern because it has direct contact with the produce and if contaminated, could result in contamination of the entire crop.
- Zone 2: Non-food contact surfaces that are in close proximity to the product, such as internal and external parts of washing or processing equipment such as sidewalls, housing, framework, or spray nozzles.
- Zone 3: Areas inside of the packing area such as trash cans, cull piles, floors, drains, restrooms, forklifts, phones, and catwalks or storage areas above packing areas.
- Zone 4: Areas outside of or adjacent to the packing area such as loading docks, warehouses, manure or compost piles, and livestock operations.
To prioritize resources and address the most likely risks of contamination, begin by addressing risks in Zone 1 since these are direct food contact areas, then proceed to Zones 2, 3, and 4. Even though Zones 2, 3, and 4 are not food contact surfaces, they still must be maintained and cleaned to prevent contamination of produce and food contact surfaces (1). To help identify the zones in your packing area, diagram the flow of produce through the packinghouse and add zone numbers to each area.
The cleaning and sanitizing process includes four steps:
- Step 1: The surface should be rinsed so any obvious dirt and debris are removed. If water is used, it must have no detectable generic E. coli in a 100 mL water sample (2).
- Step 2: Apply an appropriate detergent and scrub the surface.
- Step 3: Rinse the surface with water that has no detectable generic E. coli in a 100 mL water sample (2).
- Step 4: Apply an appropriate sanitizer. If the sanitizer requires a final rinse, this will require an extra step. Let the surface air dry. Document the cleaning and sanitation activity, including the date and method used (3).
Writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will help outline what areas need to be cleaned, how often, which detergents and sanitizers to use, how to clean and/or sanitize the surface, and who is responsible for completing the task.
Different challenges may exist depending on the type of structure where fruits and vegetables are packed and handled. Whether packing in an open tent or enclosed packinghouse, it is important to assess risks and minimize them. Pests are one obvious source of contamination risk to fresh produce, and produce, food contact surfaces, and packing materials need to be protected from pests. This may include having a routine pest monitoring practice in buildings (4). Birds, rodents, and insects should be deterred, excluded, or removed from all packing and produce handling areas using the best available methods such as setting traps, installing fencing and netting, closing doors, and repairing any holes in window screens. It is critical that packing and sorting areas be cleaned of debris at the end of each day to prevent attracting pests, such as rodents. A routine pest control program, including SOPs for monitoring and correcting any pest problems, is a valuable part of any food safety program (4).
In addition to keeping buildings, equipment, and surfaces clean, worker education and training will reduce the risk of contamination during or after harvest. Training must include any glove/apron policies, proper handwashing and bathroom use, cleaning and sanitizing tasks, eating and drinking policies, and other training relevant to the workers’ duties (5-7). Trained workers are a valuable resource to identify factors that increase produce damage. Damaged or cut produce can harbor human pathogens and decay organisms as well as provide a growth medium for pathogens on food contact surfaces. Workers must also be able to identify other food safety risks especially during harvest, include fecal contamination or other visible contamination of the crop being handled (8).
All company food safety policies should be outlined in your farm food safety plan with SOPs to guide training and the implementation of practices to reduce risks.