Currently, whole fresh fruits and vegetables are exempt from legally required implementation of GMPs, but the focus on sanitation practices is good for reducing food safety risks in fresh produce operations. Adopting good postharvest practices will not only reduce food safety risks, but also 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 for contamination. Such surfaces include equipment, belts, rollers, brushes, tables, bins, sinks, tools, and even the hands of workers. Surfaces that contact produce must be able to be easily cleaned and preferably, sanitized.
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 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 addressing risks in Zone 1 since these are direct food contact areas, then proceed to Zones 2, 3, and 4. 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.
- Step 2: Apply an appropriate detergent and scrub the surface.
- Step 3: Rinse the surface with water that is the microbial equivalent of drinking water (potable).
- Step 4: Apply an appropriate sanitizer. If the sanitizer requires a final rinse, this will require an extra step. Let the surface air dry.
Writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will help outline what areas need to be cleaned, how often, what 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 risk of contamination to fresh produce. Birds, rodents, and insects should be deterred 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 windows. It is critical that packing and sorting areas be cleaned of debris after each day to prevent attracting pests, such as rodents. A pest control program, including SOPs for monitoring and correcting any pest problems, is a valuable part to any food safety program.
In addition to keeping buildings, equipment, and surfaces clean, worker education and training will reduce the risk of postharvest contamination. Training should include any glove/apron policies, proper handwashing and bathroom use, cleaning and sanitizing tasks, and eating and drinking policies. Trained workers are a valuable resource to identify factors that increase fruit damage. Damaged or cut fruit can harbor human pathogens and decay organisms as well as provide a growth medium for pathogens on food contact surfaces. Workers may also be able to identify other food safety risks while they are working, including animal fecal contamination or other visible contamination of the crop being handled. 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.
- Iowa State University Extension. 2011. On-farm Food Safety: Cleaning and Sanitizing Guide. Publication 1974c.
- Schlimme, D. "Cleaning and Sanitizing Fresh Produce and Fresh Produce Handling Equipment, Utensils and Sales Areas". Fact Sheet 715. University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, College Park, MD.
- Kitinoja, L., Kader, A. (2002). Small-Scale Postharvest Handling Practices: A Manual for Horticultural Crops (4th Edition). University of California, Davis: Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center.
- Suslow, T., Harris, L. (2000). "Guidelines for Controlling Listeria monocytogenes in Small- to Medium-Scale Packing and Fresh-Cut Operations". University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Publication 8015.