“There’s been enough media attention on various food outbreaks and food safety problems. It’s now another subject area that you need to incorporate into your production.”
Food starts on the farm, and so does food safety, says Betty Vladicka, an Edmonton-based food safety specialist with Alberta Agriculture
“Food safety is something that cannot be ignored anymore,” she told the recent Berry and Vegetable School here. “There’s been enough media attention on various food outbreaks and food safety problems. It’s now another subject area that you need to incorporate into your production.”
The principles behind food safety programs include writing and planning what should be done, acting on the plans and then proving the actions through documentation. Documenting everything is a way of proving due diligence in case of a problem, said Vladicka.
She outlined a wide range of items for an on-farm safety checklist, right down to ensuring that cleaning supplies and equipment lubricants be safe to use around food.
Since every visitor represents a source of contamination, steps need to be taken for them to maintain personal hygiene. Customers need access to well-equipped and stocked washrooms. Signs posted around a U-pick operation can tell customers that they should wash their hands before picking and that they should put food products into clean, sanitary containers. Customers should also be reminded they shouldn’t consume any product that has fallen on the ground. Covered garbage containers should be located throughout the operation. Pets should not be allowed into any U-pick field, Vladicka said.
Fruit and vegetable producers need proper storage and packaging material to prevent the risk of contamination. Product and packaging should be stored in designated areas only.
“You want to make sure that you have a designated area away from your ag chemicals, your fertilizer and away from the production equipment and cleaning supplies,” Vladicka said.
Areas used for storage should be thoroughly cleaned, well maintained and not used to store other things. All product should be kept off the ground at about eight to 30 centimetres on pallets, and away from the walls to allow for better air movement and space for monthly inspection.
Keep critters out
“You need to look at what may be coming into your facilities,” said Vladicka. Birds, insects and rodents can all bring biological hazards with them.
Grass and shrubs around the facility should be maintained, in order to discourage pests. Windows should be closed or screened, and doors should fit snugly. All inspections and repairs should be documented. There should be no roosting areas in buildings and pest control programs should be set up for both the inside and outside of buildings.
If any evidence of pests are found, pest monitoring and control should be increased.
Vladicka said producers can choose to go with a pest-control company, or can create their own self-monitoring program. Vladicka reminded producers that bait cannot be in any areas where food is stored, and can only be used in live animal traps.
Vladicka said producers need to know where their water comes from and whether it’s subject to contamination elsewhere, such as from domestic or wild animals. “If you’re using the local river or the irrigation system, think about what’s upstream.”
Producers should also consider the risks from run-off on their own fields, and should know the working conditions of their wells and irrigation pipes.
Surface water has a much higher risk of contamination than groundwater, said Vladicka. Producers may want to look at fencing, berming or buffering their water sources.
Potable water should be used for spraying, washing, hand washing and ice, and if the water for these purposes is not coming from a municipal source, it should be tested twice a year. The final rinse of vegetables is crucial and should be done with clean, potable water. Ice should be inspected before use, handled only with clean tools, and should only be used once, Vladicka said.
Producers who wish to register to follow a recognized food safety program can follow the Canadian Horticultural Council program known as “CanadaGap,” which can be found at www.canadagap.ca.