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Talk with your produce farmer about food safety

Quick facts

  • When buying produce directly from a farm for your food business, ask farmers about their food safety practices. 
  • Food contamination risk cannot be totally eliminated, but it can be minimized.
  • A frank conversation is a good way to make sure you are getting produce that is grown, harvested and packaged using best food safety practices.
  • Farm visits are another great option for learning about a grower's food safety practices.

Ask the right questions to learn about farm food safety practices

Farmer loading vegetables into pickup

Many institutions and businesses purchase produce directly from nearby farmers. We've created a list of questions about on-farm food safety practices that food service workers can ask farmers when considering buying fresh fruits and vegetables directly from a farm. 

These questions are not about food safety in your food service kitchen. They are questions about the steps that the farmer took to minimize the risk of contamination as the food was grown, harvested and transported to your kitchen door.

There are many things you might ask a farmer about as you develop a relationship and begin to buy their food, including delivery schedule, pricing and container and pack size. Food safety can be another part of this conversation. 

These questions are meant to be a guide so that you can have an informed discussion with a farmer about the food safety practices that they use on their farm.

Minimize the risk

Produce is grown in the soil and under the sky, and there will always be some risk of contamination. Farmers cannot totally eliminate this risk, but they can minimize it by using best practices to ensure the safety of consumers.

Most farmers are very committed to on-farm food safety, and farmers should not be offended if you ask about their food safety practices. If done in a conversational way, most farmers will be happy to talk about their practices. You need to be comfortable with their answers and, if you're not, find out if they are willing to make some changes or consider not buying from the farmer at that time.

Visiting the farm is a great way to get to know the farmer and their operation. By visiting the farm, you can get a good idea of the farmer’s food safety practices, in combination with a conversation using the following questions as a guide.

Talking with farmers about food safety

Open by asking:

  • Can you tell me a little about your food safety practices? or,

  • How do you address food safety on your farm?

Listen for these words or concepts

  • I have a written food safety plan.

  • I test my well water every year.

  • We train all of our staff on our food safety protocols including hand washing, good personal hygiene, and reporting illness or injury.

  • About manure:

    • We don’t use raw manure; or,

    • We apply raw manure in the fall; or,

    • We buy composted manure.

  • I’ve passed a GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) audit, or intend to schedule an on-farm food safety audit.

    • GAP is similar to a HACCP plan for farmers, but very few farmers in Minnesota are GAP audited, so do not expect the farm to have an audit certificate.

  • I haven’t gone through a GAP audit but I’ve adopted the on-farm food safety practices that are relevant for my farm.

  • I have attended a GAP or FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) training.

Questions to ask about farmer food safety practices

Farm and production practices

  • Do you have a written food safety plan or standard operating procedures related to food safety? If not, how do you document and ensure food safety on your farm?
    —If they say no to these questions or do not seem to have thought about food safety, you may consider making a farm visit or asking more about this.

  • Will the produce be rinsed or washed?
    —If they rinse or wash their produce, it needs to be done with drinkable water.

  • How often do you have the well water tested for contaminants? 
    —We recommend testing well water for Generic E. coli at least once per year

  • How do you treat and manage your wash water? 

    —Some farms treat wash water with a sanitizer, but there is no requirement to do so.

    —Wash water in tanks or sinks should be changed as needed to maintain cleanliness.

  • What do you do to keep livestock and other animals (including pets) out of growing and packing areas?

Worker health and hygiene

  • Do you have health and hygiene training for employees? What does it cover?
    —Listen for training on hand washing procedures, illness and injury reporting.

  • Are restrooms with hand washing facilities including single-use towels, soap and clean running water available to all workers?
    —Note: Sanitizing gels are not a substitute for hand washing.

  • Are workers excluded from handling food products if they are ill or have a fever or diarrhea? 
    —Employees should be taught to look for signs of animal intrusion prior to harvest. 
    —They should not pick anything that may be contaminated with feces, nibble marks or other animal evidence.

Packaging and tool cleanliness

  • How will product be packaged?

  • Have boxes been used previously? If so, for what?

    • Boxes should appear clean and intact, like new, when the produce arrives.

    • Boxes that have held meat or poultry should not be used to transport produce.

  • How often do you clean your harvest tools and containers?
    —There is no one right answer, but they should have some kind of cleaning schedule or routine.

    • The tools should be cleaned at the end of the day.

    • The containers should appear clean.

  • Where do you pack your produce?
    —They may field pack or have a packinghouse.

    • Produce should be kept off the ground.

    • Food contact surfaces in packing areas should be regularly cleaned and sanitized.

  • How is the produce kept cool and covered before and during delivery?  
    —Coolers and delivery vehicles should be kept clean.

Reviewed in 2019

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