Use Common Sense Growing Berries That Are Food-Safe
Berry growers must be watchful to maintain excellent sanitation in and around their berry fields, parking areas, and all facilities associated with their berry enterprises. Federal and state regulations in the interest of public health and safety are more numerous than in the past and are updated from time to time. It seems a good idea, or may be required in some states, to post our complying best management practices prominently and work to adhere to all such regulations that pertain to our berry enterprises.
While we growers may feel that food safety is not our favorite berry growing topic, none of us wants to be responsible for a foodborne illness from pathogen-contaminated berries. This is by no means a comprehensive and complete review of all we may need to do, but I want to list some of the common-sense actions needed to help ensure our berries are wholesome, safe, and pathogen-free:
1. During the ripening and harvest season, use drip irrigation instead of sprinkler irrigation that throws water from ponds or streams onto developing and ripening berries. However, during bloom and early fruit development, sprinkler irrigation is necessary for frost protection in many areas.
2. Most berry crops are hand-harvested except for blueberries that are machine-harvested by larger growers. Blueberries are tough skinned and firm enough to be tank-water washed, then air-dried, then belt-moved on packing lines, inspected, and graded as they move toward automatic filling of clamshell containers. Soft fruit berry crops include strawberries, blackberries, and most raspberries that are hand-harvested. Clean, dry berries are gently field-picked and placed in their clean, new final retail containers. Pickers’ hands must be clean. Portable in-field toilet and hand washing stations are needed to maintain clean picking hands. Sanitation must be practiced and monitored carefully at all times.
3. Larger growers, those who pack and ship soft-type berries, must invest in forced-air cooling to be used immediately after harvest to rapidly remove field heat. All berry handlers need to have clean hands, washed after each break. A good idea: Each worker also should have access to hand sanitizing dispensers near their berry handling work stations.
4. Pick-your-own growers too, need neat and clean check-in/check-out stations, plus clean, well-kept public toilet facilities that contain hand-washing soap and water dispensers in working order, cleaned daily, and kept in good repair. Clean, new containers only should be offered for sale to customers. (They can recycle them by bringing them for re-use after they wash them at home). It is always a good idea to keep hand sanitizing dispensers handy at your check-in station and invite folks to wash their hands before picking their berries. It is always good to show your concern for their health. You do this by reassuring
them you use no pesticides on ripe berries and that they in turn should not pick berries that contain bird droppings, or pick up berries from the ground, possibly contaminated by fungi or other unwelcome microbes.
5. Pick-your-own customers should be forewarned that dogs or other pets are not allowed. Ask them to please not bring them nor leave them in their vehicles. This seems harsh to the public, but is necessary to help ensure food safety. Whatever form of social media you use to announce your berry season opening and update news, all forms of customer-communication must stress this fact. Also, post signs in your entrance-way and in the parking fields that read: “No Pets Allowed.”
6. Finally, we want our customers who will be consuming berries from our farm to know it is always a good idea to wash their berries under running tap water before eating them. We make every effort to produce pathogen-free berries and use only new, clean containers for harvesting them, but it is good to remind them to wash fruit before eating it. Many, perhaps most, pick-your-own berry customers freeze much of their berries for use year-round. Freeze only dry berries, then wash them after thawing from the freezer, so that berries do not adhere to each other in the freezer bag. Berries washed and placed into a freezer bag while wet become a frozen lump. Your customer might wish to remove just a cup of berries from the freezer bag each morning, possible only with dry berries. They will appreciate your advice about this while they are at the check-out stand.