Frequently Asked Questions

Click on the questions below to see answers.

To start, food safety is important because everyone requires food and nutrients to survive. When food is deemed not safe it threatens everyone: babies, children, elderly, immunocompromised individuals, as well as healthy populations. With the population growing, it is important to make sure all food is the safest it can possibly be for all populations to consume. Food can become contaminated at any point of production, during pre-harvest, harvest, and all post-harvest activities and conditions. Food safety, first and foremost, falls a great deal on the responsibility of the producer. There are food handlers that do not realize the importance of tasks such as good hygiene practices, and how important they are to the health of the community they serve. Additionally, food producers and handlers must emphasize proper food handling and preparation for the consumer at home, which can be aided by proper instructional and labeling materials on products purchased that require further processing. Overall, foodborne illness creates a huge burden on worldwide public health, especially since the amount of illness is severely underestimated, but remains as one of the highest causes of diarrheal illness in all populations.

CDC estimates 48 million individuals get sick, 128,000 people are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States. This is approximately 1 in 6 Americans that become ill each year. Of these outbreaks, close to half of them have been linked to contaminated fresh produce. Some outbreaks include lettuce, spinach, other leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, berries, mangoes, squash, cabbage, onions, sprouts, and herbs.

There have been an increased number of outbreaks and recalls due to microorganisms that cause foodborne illness in fresh produce. These organisms can be present on or within a number of different produce commodities.  If a case of foodborne illness or an outbreak of foodborne illness was traced back to a food producer, market or other retail outlet, there could be serious economic repercussions. Just one outbreak or recall have been enough to put some people out of business, and further, the economy as a whole suffers with a reduction in worker productivity, and ultimately can give a negative consumer perception on particular products. An example of this is seen with E. coli outbreaks in spinach in 2006. Spinach as a product and industry lost an incredible amount of money because of contamination from a few locations, and it has taken years for consumers to return to buying spinach.  Additionally, spinach sales have never returned to the level that they were prior to the spinach outbreak.  Thus, all farms who depended on income from spinach sales have suffered, even though the majority of farms were not linked in any way to the outbreak.

  • Biological organisms that can contaminate foods.  Commonly associated organisms are microbial (Salmonella, E. coli, Shigella, Listeria monocytogenes); viral (Norovirus, Hepatitis A); and parasitic (Giardia lamblia, Cryptosporidium parvum, Cyclospora cayetanensis)
  • Physical contaminants are physical objects that can contaminate foods, and the most common ones are metal shavings, nails, dirt, rocks, fingernails, pieces of wood, glass, etc.
  • Chemical contaminants include cleaning supplies, heavy metals, lubricants, pesticides, fertilizers, and naturally occurring toxins.

A hazard analysis allows you to identify the food safety contamination hazards present on your farm. There are several primary sources of contamination: (1) humans; (2) soil and soil amendments; (3) agricultural water; (4) animals; and (5) equipment, tools, and facilities. Each source can be a means for the spread of the three types of hazards (mentioned above). It is important to examine each stage of the flow of product and identify what hazards might exist. Based on a thorough assessment, which is typically created into a working document, GAPs or best practices can then be incorporated at these different stages of production, harvesting, post-harvest handling, and market place handling in order to reduce and mitigate the hazards.

The written hazard analysis is a working document that can aid in the development of your farm safety plan, incorporating specific practices, and, if required, is indispensable for preparing for a third-party food safety audit. Conducting hazard assessments will help you to better identify and target specific problem areas, as well as document your findings and guide you in the GAPs needed to address those problem areas. Essentially, they can help you to streamline your operation and account for any problems that might arise related to breaches in food safety.

To identify hazards, it is important to think of the flow of your products, from pre-plant to production to harvest to post-harvest handling stages. To aid in understanding your product flow, it is a good idea to create a sketch that shows your various growing areas (fields, high tunnels, greenhouses) and other related facilities (packing areas, wash systems, tools, equipment, coolers, transport vehicles). As you create your sketch, it is helpful to outline your process in a separate list, starting with pre-production tasks and ending with the final steps at the point of sale (i.e., marketplace or transaction with buyer). If you grow multiple crops, you will need to consider production, harvest, and handling practices for each crop. You will use the sketch and list to focus on three primary questions:

  • What are the potential hazards (biological, chemical, physical) at each stage?
  • What are the sources of contamination at each stage (how is the produce exposed to hazards)?
  • What practices can be implemented at each stage to reduce and minimize exposure to those hazards?

Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) are specific best practices that target specific risks identified in the on-farm risk assessments and are designed to minimize the risk of foodborne illness caused by contaminated fresh produce. GAPs focus on contamination that can be caused via poor worker health and hygiene practices; soil amendments; poor water quality (agricultural water and post-harvest handling water); animals; tools, equipment, and facilities; and other possible exposure to contaminants. Best practices are put into place in an effort to reduce any fecal and other types of contamination. Once implemented, GAPs are then monitored to make sure they are working effectively. In situations where contamination might occur, corrective actions are then taken to remediate the problem. It is important to document all GAPs incorporated, as well as monitoring steps and any corrective actions, so that if there are any issues, there is a record that details all of your steps.

On-Farm Food Safety Assessment Resources

Assessing On-Farm Produce Safety Risks
This seven-part factsheet series provides in-depth information for farms and processors who grow, pack, harvest, hold, and/or ship fruits and vegetables.  Each factsheet in the series comes with a checklist of questions and guidance:

Assessing On-Farm Produce Safety Risks Video Modules

Enhancing the Safety of Locally Grown Produce
These excellent resources were developed by Virginia Tech, Clemson, and University of Georgia.  They provide a great starting point for better understanding on risks, with a focus on specific various routes of contamination.  See also other Producer Resources subpages for additional related resources.

Fresh Produce Food Safety Risk Assessment
This 3½ minute video provides a brief overview of risks on farm and is a simple introduction to this topic.

Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Grower Self Assessment of Food Safety Risks
The excellent resource is designed to guide growers through the process of identifying risks particular to their operation, developing appropriate solutions, implementing good agricultural practices and developing a farm food safety plan. This document has 21 sections allowing growers to evaluate many different parts of their operation including harvest sanitation, worker hygiene, wild animals, water use, farm biosecurity, and crisis management. Each section contains worksheets so that growers can document their progress and plan for GAPs implementation.  Can be purchased or downloaded.

National Good Agricultural Practices Program Decision Trees
These tools are an excellent guide for helping identify on-farm food safety risks and practices that can reduce those risks. The trees are definitely a great first step in any on-farm food safety plan writing and preparing for the GAP certification process.

NCAT’s ATTRA Farm-Based Food Safety Video Series
A set if six videos showing how some farmers are approaching on-farm food safety.  Includes an overview to food safety, recordkeeping, hand washing, water testing, field and harvest procedures, and packing shed set up and wash procedures.