Fresh produce provides many health benefits, and there has been increased interest in growing fresh produce in home gardens. However, data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention shows that produce is responsible for 46% of foodborne illnesses and 23% of illness-related deaths. Produce can easily become contaminated during growing and harvesting, and once contaminated, removing pathogens from the produce is challenging. Produce structures, such as seeds on strawberries or stem bowls on tree fruit, provide bacteria protection and make it difficult to wash pathogens off of produce once it has become contaminated. Additionally, fresh produce does not undergo a “kill step,” such as cooking, to destroy pathogens contaminating the produce. As a home gardener, you can take steps to provide your family with safe and fresh produce.
The biggest culprit for produce contamination is contact with animal feces. This contact can occur through use of contaminated water or soil amendments, improper handwashing or animal intrusion into growing areas. Before handling produce, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds to remove harmful bacteria. If you wear gloves while handling or harvesting produce, make sure your gloves are clean. If they have come into contact with feces or other contaminants, you must remove the gloves and wash them in hot soapy water before reusing them.
Water used for irrigation or washing produce can often become contaminated with pathogens, especially if you are using water exposed to the environment. Water collected from surfaces into rain barrels can become contaminated by chemicals or feces. Other surface water, such as ponds, is likely to attract wildlife, such as birds, which are likely to defecate in the water. If you are using water that is exposed to the environment, it is best to apply the water directly to the roots of the crop by using a drip irrigation system so it does not come into contact with the harvestable portion of the crop. If you use overhead spraying to water your garden, be sure to use water from a potable water supply, such as tested ground water or public water sources, to reduce contamination ofyour produce.