Food Safety (Fresh Produce)

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The greatest risk to human health from consumption of uncooked produce is from pathogenic microorganisms. Raw agricultural products, such as fresh produce, should be expected to harbor a wide variety of microorganisms including the occasional pathogen. A vigorous population of nonpathogenic bacteria can be an excellent barrier to prevent the growth of pathogens, should they be present. Non-pathogenic bacteria also act as indicators of temperature abuse and age by spoiling the product. In the absence of spoilage, high levels of pathogens may occur and the item may be consumed because it is not perceived as spoiled. There are four groups of human pathogens associated with fresh produce:

  • Soil-associated pathogenic bacteria (Clostridium botulinum, Listeria moncytogenes)
  • Fecal-associated pathogenic bacteria (Salmonella spp., Shigella spp., E. coli O157:H7 and others)
  • Pathogenic parasites (Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora)
  • Pathogenic viruses (Hepatitis, Norwalk virus and others)

Many of these pathogens are spread via a human (or domestic animal) to food to human transmission route. Fruits and vegetables may become contaminated by infected field-workers, food preparers, consumers, cross contamination, use of contaminated irrigation water, use of inadequately composted manure or contact with contaminated soil. To minimize risks, growers should implement practices outlined in the “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables” published by the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA (1998). This publication outlines Good Agricultural Practices (GAP’s) which, when followed, can significantly reduce the risk of microbial hazards in produce. Growers should be aware that agricultural practices that may have been acceptable in years past may no longer be acceptable. In addition, fresh-cut processors should adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) 21 [CFR 100-169] to appropriately manage food safety risks during processing. Food handlers and consumers must act responsibly as they are the final link in the food safety chain.

James R. Gorny
Devon Zagory
USDA Agriculture Handbook