Bobbi Stevenson-McDermott Dec. 6, 2015 publication
Food Safety, it seems to be in the news more and more these days. Recently a major restaurant chain had problems that were linked to the fresh produce used. Do you ever think about how many people and processes are involved in the trip your fresh produce takes from the field to your kitchen? Let’s take a look at some of the stops your lettuce, romaine or green onions make.
Once the grower has produced the desired crop, a harvest crew comes in to remove the crop from the field. Those workers receive extensive training and supervision in the safe handling of fresh produce and there are daily checklists that the food safety office for each company goes through to maintain quality. From the field, the field trucks take the product either to the cooler or to a processing plant.
At the cooler, if the product is boxed in the field, it is cooled rapidly in cooling tube to 45 degrees or less and placed in cold rooms to maintain the required temperature. Refrigerated trailers back up to the loading dock and the chilled produce in boxes is loaded. Those trucks then travel to destinations across the United States and Canada. Once at their destination, the products are unloaded into a handling facility to be delivered to local stores and restaurants. From there it is prepared and served at your table, whether at home or restaurant.
All along the way, there is the potential for the produce to be mishandled. The truck may be delayed and the produce loses quality. It may be so cold that the product freezes in the truck, or the refrigeration unit may not maintain the correct temperature and the lettuce gets too warm. When the produce arrives at the distribution center, there is the possibility that the holding areas are not cool enough, or that some of the product is misplaced.
If the product gets through to its home or business destination in quality condition, the challenge is now on how it is stored and prepared. All along the travel path of the fruits and vegetables, folks handling it are trained in food safety. Depending on the level of emphasis in businesses, the proper care and handing of food products for food safety is not always the primary concern.
When preparing food, there is always the potential of cross contamination if knives, cutting boards, bowls and cooking pans are not cleaned properly between the preparation of different food items. None of the problems we deal with in food safety are deliberate efforts to make people ill. It is a lack of training and emphasis on the value of food safety practices. It is a continuous process of training, review and reinforcement of training that prevents food borne problems from occurring.
The United States has the safest food supplies in the world and agricultural producers work continuously to improve growing, harvest, distribution and transportation methods to make sure that the products available are of the highest quality. For the consumer, buy the freshest looking produce, check the ‘use by’ date that is on so many packaged fruits and vegetables, and look at the product in the container, regardless of the date.
Enjoy the wonderful bounty of our farms during this holiday season!
Bobbi Stevenson-McDermott is a soil and water conservationist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.