To reduce the risk of food poisoning, practice good habits in the garden such as using clean containers for harvest.
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As more people pick up a hoe to grow their own produce, food safety becomes a concern.
“Most people can’t believe that their own habits could possibly be the source of problems and are not aware what habits can cause risk,” said Jeanne Brandt, a family and community health expert with Oregon State University Extension Service. “We only hear about widespread breakouts of food poisoning from commercial distribution. But what we do in the garden and kitchen can be problematic.”
Brandt is not out to panic gardeners. But the risk is real, especially for children, the elderly, the sick and those with compromised immune systems. Reducing the chances of foodborne illness means changing behavior, including better hygiene, keeping animals out of the garden and using well-rotted compost and manures.
Sara Runkel, a food systems coordinator with OSU Extension’s Small Farms program, explains that foodborne illnesses come from the digestive tracts of animals and humans. She notes that once pathogens come in contact with produce, they’re difficult to kill, which makes good garden practices all the more important.
Brandt and Runkel offer these recommendations:
Attempt to find out how your garden site was used before you planted. Consider bringing in soil or using raised beds if you think the existing soil has been contaminated.
Use potable water if possible. Runkel points out that municipal water has practically no risk of carrying pathogens. Surface water has the highest risk. Well water — which should be tested once a year — falls in between.
Wash hands and tools between working in the soil and harvesting.
Use separate clippers and gloves for harvesting and working in the soil.
Don’t use dirty wheelbarrows, buckets or other containers for harvesting. Keep a clean container just for harvest.
Keep animals out of the garden. Though this may be a struggle, it’s important to eliminate feces. For small wildlife, clear debris from around the edge of the garden where they can hide. If possible, build a fence.
If you make your own compost, the core temperature must be maintained between 131 and 170 degrees for at least 15 days, turning the pile five times, in order to kill pathogens. Bagged or commercial compost has been heat treated and is considered safe. If kitchen scraps are included in the compost pile, rats, raccoons and other wildlife will arrive for a meal. Barrel composters are good for keeping animals out.
Don’t let chickens into the garden. Chicken manure is a great soil amendment, but like compost, must sit for 90 to 120 days before applying.
Clean produce with cool, running water once you’ve brought it inside.