Good Agricultural Practices for the Production of Leafy Greens
In Ontario, more than 870 hectares of leafy greens are grown, including celery, head and leaf lettuce and spinach. All three crops are grown throughout the season, late into the fall months. Growers of leafy greens take the time to pick the right variety, the right planting date and the right field. But it doesn't stop there. Producers of these crops must ensure good agricultural practices are adhered to from the time the seed arrives until the product is shipped to the consumer.
Field of leafy greens
Obviously, it isn't possible to negate every possible risk. However, there are principles and practices that will help minimize contamination, reduce survival of pathogens and prevent cross-contamination.
Know where the risks are:
Irrigation - Like all crops, leafy greens require water either via rain events or through irrigation. If it's time to irrigate, know the quality of your water source. Growers pull water from ponds, rivers, streams, canals, and ditches. The risk of contamination upstream, especially when pulling from rivers, streams, canals and ditches must be considered. Regardless of the irrigation source, test your water regularly. This will provide a snapshot of water quality at the time of testing and will allow growers to document changes over time. It may also pinpoint periods during the growing season when water quality may be suspect.
Evaluate the irrigation method. For instance, trickle irrigation can reduce the risk of contamination because there is minimal contact with the edible portion of the plant. Compare this to overhead irrigation, where most water contact occurs on the foliage.
In addition, one important agricultural practice is to protect and maintain
safe irrigation water sources. For example, maintenance of wells and ponds
and the prevention of polluted run-off from entering water sources will
help to reduce the risk of contamination.
Worker Sanitation - Mom always said wash your hands! Ensure that all staff are educated on the importance and need for good hygiene. Washing of hands is an effective way to minimize worker-based contamination. If running water isn't available, supply workers with water-free hand sanitizers, they only cost a few dollars! And, ensure field workers have access to washroom facilities that are properly maintained and serviced.
Harvest and Packing - Many leafy greens are harvested and packed in the field. However, some do receive further processing including washing and individual packaging. It is important that all equipment that comes in contact with leafy greens, whether in the field or packing shed, is cleaned on a regular basis. Knives, containers, and baskets should be sanitized between uses. All processing water should be sampled on a regular basis. If your operation uses re-circulated water, ensure that practices are in place to reduce the risk of contamination through the use of sanitizers, or frequent changes of water.
Transportation - Unfortunately, the risk of contamination doesn't end when the produce leaves the grower's premises. The risk of microbial pathogens and reduced quality can increase during transportation if proper temperatures are not maintained. In fact, temperature abuse anywhere along the food-chain can turn a small problem into a large problem due to rapid growth of bacteria. Another important factor to consider is vehicle cleanliness. Always inspect trucks for cleanliness, odours and obvious dirt before loading.
Records - And finally, keep good records. Documentation proves that you take food safety as seriously as you take food quality.
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