In theory, food safety practices like hand washing prior to fruit harvest seem simple and obvious.
In reality, though, inconveniently placed soap dispensers and other obstacles can discourage this preventive measure, said Oregon State University extension agent Luisa Santamaria.
Faucets that require continuous hand pumping can also lead to contamination and negate the benefits of washing, she said.
Ensuring proper food safety practices on the farm requires working with human nature, Santamaria said during a recent workshop in Eugene, Ore.
The Oregon Farms Food Safety Program is hosting a series of educational events designed to “train the trainers” — prepare farmers to teach their workers how to minimize the risk of foodborne illness.
“The idea is to help growers to have the material to support training,” said Santamaria.
The program is funded with $84,000 in USDA grant money and matching funds from several Oregon crop commissions.
Last year, the program trained 165 people, but the training actually reached a higher number of employees, Santamaria said. About 20 percent of the participants filled out a survey and reported training 1,300 farm workers.
More than two-thirds of the survey respondents also reported improved food safety practices at their farm due to the workshop.
“It was very encouraging,” said Philip Gütt, administrator of the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission and the Oregon Strawberry Commission.
In 2014, about 350 people have signed up for the workshops, which are being held in English and Spanish at 18 locations through the end of April.
The educational workshops were prompted by an outbreak of illness caused by E. coli bacteria that was linked to an Oregon strawberry farm, he said.
Worker behavior is a major theme of the presentations, Gütt said. “That’s a real key to food safety on farms.”
Much of the food safety advice involves common sense:
• Sick workers should stay home and out of the fields during harvest time.
• Hands should be cleaned with soap and water, not just alcohol sanitizer. Soap removes organic matter where microbes fester.
• Ensure toilet facilities are not leaky, as contaminated water can be tracked into the field.
• Don’t eat while harvesting fruit, as this can spread germs.
• Animal droppings should be flagged and workers shouldn’t harvest fruit within six feet of the feces.
• Containers for storing fruit must be clean and should not be left outdoors overnight to prevent animal contamination.
• Damaged containers should not be used, since jagged pieces of plastic can hurt consumers. Workers can also cut themselves on damaged containers and contaminate fruit with blood.
• To prevent intentional contamination, report anybody who doesn’t belong in the field to a supervisor.
The goal of the workshops is to get farmers, labor contractors and others to think about food safety processes in detail and envision how people operate in real life, Santamaria said.
Participants also practice giving presentations and learn how to reinforce key messages by asking questions, she said.