Minnesota gardeners are enjoying the fruits of their vegetable gardening labor. As you harvest food for your own family, your neighbors, or for your wider community, it is important to make sure that food is safe from microorganisms that can make people sick.
Microorganisms are a natural part of the environment and most are beneficial or neutral for human and plant health. But pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites found in the feces of humans and animals, like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, can spread to fresh produce and cause serious illness if eaten. It only takes a very small amount of E.coli to make many people seriously ill.
Fecal contamination of produce can be a problem whether you use organic or conventional gardening methods. Contaminated water, tools, animals and soil with pathogenic bacteria from animal feces may spread harmful organisms in your garden.
The good thing is that basic food safety practices like hand washing and cleaning equipment go a long way in preventing foodborne illness from spreading via your garden produce. Follow these food safety practices to keep your harvest, family and friends safe this fall.
Before and during harvest
- Wash your hands before you harvest, every time, using soap and water. The water does not need to be hot.
- Hand sanitizer is not a replacement for handwashing. Make sure there is a handwashing stand in the garden. See these plans for building a low-cost portable stand.
- Harvest into clean containers, like totes dedicated to harvesting, that are free from visible soil.
- Don't use an old bag or other non-food-grade packaging.
- Don't use a container that had treated seeds, chemicals or other materials in it that could leach into the plastic.
- Don't harvest when you are sick. If you have symptoms of illness like nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, or those associated with COVID-19, do not harvest or touch produce for others.
- Look for signs of animals like scat, fur and nibbled produce, and do not harvest the produce that is close to these signs, or that has visible animal feces on it. Remember, you cannot fully wash off contamination, so don’t harvest anything that might be contaminated.
- If you use compost from animal sources (composted manure), use it with care, as it can contain high levels of pathogenic bacteria. If you are using compost from a fully treated source like a bagged product from a store, it is generally low risk and safe to use. Manure from animals that is not fully treated, like from a barn that has been cleaned out, should be applied in the fall after harvest so that there is time for pathogenic microbes to die off before it will be planted in the spring.
- Keep produce cool during storage and transport.
- Different produce should be kept at different temperatures.
- Not all produce needs to be washed when harvested.
- The washing process can actually reduce the storage life of some produce. Water can spread contamination if it is left on the outside of the produce, or from sinks or buckets used for washing.
- Make sure the water you are using for washing is drinking water.
- Consumers should always wash fresh produce before eating, regardless of whether it's already been washed in the garden or on the farm.
- Do not wash: Berries, herbs, storage onions, tomatoes and some other storage crops are generally not washed until ready to eat.
- Wash with care: Some products like greens, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, eggplant, and green beans might also not need to be washed outside, depending on how they were grown, recent rainfall, etc.
- Generally wash: Most root vegetables will need to be washed before going into the kitchen to remove sand and soil.
- Use a clean washing tank or container, clean water and clean hands when washing.
- Use a clean bucket or spray table outside to spray or dunk the produce to remove soil.
- Avoid bringing the produce into your home kitchen before using, as there is more potential for cross-contamination.
If you are lucky enough to have a surplus of produce this fall, you might think about donating it to a food shelf, church or other hunger-relief organization. We have no way to know who will eat the food we donate, that's why it's important to take safety precautions when donating produce.
- Whatever you will be putting your fruits and vegetables in to transport them, make sure that it will not contaminate your produce.
- Use new, single-use or clean boxes or bags whenever possible. Store them indoors in a secure location away from pests and other contaminants.
- If you reuse boxes, make sure they are in good shape, or consider using a plastic liner to reduce the potential for contamination.
- Transport the produce in a clean vehicle that does not have garbage, chemicals or pet hair in it that could be a source of contamination.
- Temperature is very important for product quality and food safety. Keep the produce as cool as possible from your farm to the final destination.
Find more information about food safety, canning, and storing garden-grown produce.