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Enjoy the fruits of the harvest – but please wash first!

season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
’ is now upon us. Traditional British orchard fruits come into their own at this time of year – apples, plums, pears, cherries – and let’s not forget delicious blackberries, gooseberries and rhubarb. It’s the time for Harvest Festivals, wrapping up warm and going out for a long walk, then making hearty comforting dinners with mashed or roast potatoes, cabbage and root vegetables followed by a fruit pie or crumble. Of course, thanks to the wonders of intercontinental transport, we can get virtually any fruit at any time of the year, but there’s something particularly pleasing about eating fruit and veg that is in season.

Beware of creepy crawlies and other invisible bugs

It’s tempting to just pluck an apple from a tree and eat it or grab a handful of blackberries and pop them in your mouth, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you are picking and eating produce from your own garden or allotment, then you need to make sure that you have washed the fruit or veg thoroughly before you consume it. You also need to follow the usual food safety rules of hand washing and preparing it with clean utensils on a clean surface which has not been in contact with raw meat to avoid any danger of cross-contamination and potential illness.

Illness related to packaged fruit and vegetables does hit the headlines occasionally. Last year there was the outbreak of food poisoning related to imported bean sprouts there have been cases of E-coli in mixed lettuce and Cyclospara in raspberries to name a few examples. If not processed in a sanitary environment, packaged produce can harbour micro organisms such as moulds, yeast, bacteria, protozoa, viruses and worms.

Believe it or not water can be a contaminant

At home we use clean water from the tap to rinse produce prior to eating, but in processing facilities where large volumes of produce are washed at once it should be remembered that water itself is a potential contaminant if it is not changed regularly. Continual re-use of processing water can result in a build up of microbes (including pathogens) which have been left behind in the water from the previous load. Processing water can be re-used, but it should always be used early in the production process. Final rinse water should always be of drinking quality.

It is not only the water used in produce processing that requires careful consideration. Sanitation of packaging and processing areas is also essential. Microbes can breed on any surface which is not sanitised, so all surfaces, including floors, equipment, packaging stations, drainage, fixtures and fittings need regular attention. In a previous post we have also mentioned the importance of pest control measures, which includes preventing access to insects, birds and rodents and discouraging their presence by cutting back vegetation in the grounds of premises.

Personal hygiene in produce packaging plants

Since contamination of the produce can be caused by coughing, sneezing and faecal matter, good personal hygiene is vital if you are involved in processing, packing or handling produce. Thorough hand washing including under fingernails and between fingers should always be undertaken. If you have cuts, sores, or lesions on your hands, make sure that they are effectively covered and wear clean gloves. Finally, if you are suffering from a virus or diarrhoea, don’t handle food.

6 ways to reduce the risk of contamination at packaging plants

  • Don’t use containers which are damaged and make sure any new or unused containers are stored in such a way as to prevent contamination
  • Always clean pallets, containers or bins before using them to transport fruit or vegetables
  • Keep equipment or machinery which comes into contact with fresh produce as clean as possible and check for defects. This also applies to implements such as knives, blades and brushes and protective clothing such as boots, gloves, aprons etc.
  • Always clean and sanitise packing areas at the end of each working day and clean product storage areas regularly
  • Make sure the cooling systems are well-maintained and functioning correctly
  • Establish an effective pest control system

Once again, the message is ‘clean, clean and clean again.’ Larger operations may wish to find out more about our Food Safety and HACCP courses