Safety concerns for fresh produce increase during pandemic

Desert Farming Initiative gives tips for ensuring produce safety during COVID-19 outbreak

Crates of fresh produce

The Desert Farming Initiative is providing safety tips and information for producers and consumers of fresh produce. Photo by Jill Moe, Desert Farming Initiative.

Safety concerns for fresh produce increase during pandemic

Desert Farming Initiative gives tips for ensuring produce safety during COVID-19 outbreak

The Desert Farming Initiative is providing safety tips and information for producers and consumers of fresh produce. Photo by Jill Moe, Desert Farming Initiative.

Crates of fresh produce

The Desert Farming Initiative is providing safety tips and information for producers and consumers of fresh produce. Photo by Jill Moe, Desert Farming Initiative.

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Grocery shopping and produce safety have been concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Desert Farming Initiative, part of the University of Nevada, Reno Experiment Station, provides information to help producers and consumers minimize food-safety risks.

By Jill Moe, Desert Farming Initiative 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many consumers have been grappling with how to balance the need for fresh food with the risks posed by grocery shopping. An additional concern amid the virus, is the health and safety of the workers who grow and process these foods, and those who staff our grocery stores. Nevada’s farm workers have continued to grow produce and devise innovative new avenues to get it to our tables, and stores have taken unprecedented measures to safely stay open.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there is no evidence that COVID-19 is being transmitted by packaging or fresh food, the people growing, selling and shopping for it do face considerable risks. Below is some key guidance for fruit and vegetable growers, as well as consumers, to reduce exposure to COVID-19 during this trying time. 

For fruit and vegetable growers:

  • Implement on-farm social distancing and hygiene practices – Because this virus is primarily spread by person-to-person contact, social distancing is the most important defense on the farm. Follow scheduling, barrier, handwashing and shared-equipment-use practices recommended by the CDC, Produce Safety Alliance and Nevada Department of Agriculture. Monitor farm staff for illness and post reminders about COVID-19 prevention measures on the farm.
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch and food contact surfaces on a frequent schedule, including farm tools, equipment and facilities. The Environmental Protection Agency is maintaining a list of sanitizers that are effective against COVID-19, and California Certified Organic Farmers offers guidance on using sanitizers on organic operations. Make sure to use cleaners and disinfectants according to instructions on the label and do not mix them.
  • Ensure that any packaging used for food transport is clean and protected from contamination. Make sure wash, pack and delivery workers are following COVID-19 health and hygiene practices and that vehicles are disinfected before every delivery. Note that cardboard and wax boxes cannot be cleaned and sanitized in general, and reuse of packaging is of heightened concern during this pandemic.
  • Have a farm food-safety plan in place ( see Food Safety Modernization Act and Good Agricultural Practices standards). Comprehensive food-safety procedures are proven to reduce the risks of contamination in general. Ensure all farm workers understand and are trained on safe produce handling and additional COVID-19 measures.

For fresh produce consumers:

  • Limit your trips to the grocery store or market, maintain social distance and wear a mask. All of these practices that have become so familiar in the past couple of months do reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure to you and the people around you.
  • Wash hands often. This is the simplest and most effective action you can take. Wash hands for 20 seconds before and after shopping and handling food.
  • Rinse fruit and vegetables under clean running water and scrub with a brush if necessary.  This is a general food-safety practice that is always a good idea. Do not use soaps, sanitizers or disinfectants on fresh food at home, and follow standard safe food handling rules.

Finally, keep checking sources of credible and timely online food-safety information. The Food and Drug Administration, CDC, Produce Safety Alliance and Nevada Department of Agriculture offer guidance for producers and consumers regarding COVID-19 and food-safety risks. Be aware of this guidance so that you can observe whether your local store and other sources of fresh food are properly managing risks and stay up to date with practices for your home. 

The science around COVID-19 and food safety in general is evolving. The Desert Farming Initiative is a statewide resource for produce safety, including offering help with on-farm food-safety planning, and can direct you to credible resources for answers to your questions. The Initiative’s Food Safety Program also provides safety checklists and a short film about the steps being taken by Nevada farms to prevent food contamination and illness. Growers or others wanting information on produce safety can contact Moe at jmoe@unr.edu, or connect on the Desert Farming Initiative Facebook page.

Jill Moe is the education program coordinator and produce safety specialist at the Desert Farming Initiative, a program within the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources.

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