7 Barn Practices for Better Food Safety

If you're pursuing USDA Good Agricultural Practices certification for your farm, look at these processing-building improvements to boost your audit score.

by Lisa MunniksmaJanuary 16, 2014
PHOTO: Jo Ann Crebbin/iStock/Thinkstock

For small-scale farmers wanting to show they’re serious about food safety, the Good Agricultural Practices certification is accepted industry-wide. GAP is USDA’s voluntary program to assess efforts in minimizing the risk of microbial contamination of produce and food items. Every farmer should take food safety seriously and have a food-safety plan in place, regardless of whether he is seeking GAP certification.

Many GAP guidelines are common-sense practices, yet some are easily overlooked. Here are seven things you can implement in your produce-processing barn, in particular, to build your food-safety plan and boost your GAP audit score.

1. Have a restroom with toilet paper, a sink, soap and disposable towels.

Chris Blanchard, owner of Flying Rutabaga Works and Rock Spring Farm in Decorah, Iowa, says there are three keys of food safety:

  • Keep poop off food.
  • Keep poop from spreading.
  • Keep poop from growing.

A primary means of achieving these objectives is by washing hands. Blanchard says you don’t necessarily need hot water or antibacterial soap, but you do need a dedicated sink for hand washing—ideally with hands-free handles—that drains away from food-handling and foot-traffic areas.

Post hand-washing protocols in the bathroom and at the hand-washing sink. According to the Food and Drug Administration’s “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables,” the importance of food workers understanding and practicing proper hygiene cannot be overemphasized. Workers can unintentionally contaminate fresh produce, water supplies and other workers, and transmit foodborne illness if they do not understand and follow basic hygienic principles.

Do not dry your hands on cloth/reusable towels—and especially not on your dirty jeans—as these tend to carry more germs than what you washed away. Let your hands air-dry or use paper towels. If the idea of using paper towels makes your sustainable-living side anxious, compost after use.

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Keep the restroom clean and well-stocked.

2. Keep a first-aid kit.

Prompt treatment of cuts, abrasions and other injuries is an obvious good practice for your own health, and it reduces the likelihood of produce contamination.

Post health policies for all to read. These should include guidelines for not working when sick, seeking immediate first aid for injuries, and reporting illnesses and injuries.

3. Provide a separate break area.

Your own food—as in the food you’re eating—should remain separate from the food you’re selling. Designate an area for eating and smoking away from the processing area, and emphasize washing hands before returning to work with the produce.

4. Secure harvesting equipment.

Take measures to prevent critters from accessing your harvesting crates, knives and gloves. Outdoor crate storage might sound like a good idea if you’re short on covered space, but passing birds and wildlife can contaminate surfaces before the produce even comes in contact with the equipment.

Don’t use harvesting equipment for anything other than produce, and designate separate containers for washed and unwashed produce.

Keep a regular schedule for sanitizing harvesting equipment and document it. Wash off visible dirt after each use. Think about ease of sanitization when choosing your harvesting equipment, too: Plastic crates are easy to clean; wooden crates are not.

5. Reduce physical contaminants.

Physical contamination is a danger in processing barns, too, and often comes from above. Cover light bulbs and screen windows so shattered glass cannot fall onto your produce. Shield machine parts so grease, oil or metal shards can’t accidentally fall into processing areas. Have recovery procedures in place in case these accidents occur.

6. Exclude pests from the barn.

Insects, birds and rodents find their way into processing areas under eaves and through open doors and windows. You don’t need to shut everything up tight, but secure these areas with bird netting, screens or clear-plastic strip doors.

Repair physical damage to the barn, such as cracks or crevices in the floor or walls, that would allow pests to pass through.

7. Clean up.

Sanitize all areas of the barn and sweep up regularly. Keep in mind that brick, dirt and gravel floors and brick and wood walls are not sanitizable—this should be taken into account when applying for GAP certification.

Floor drains should be unobstructed; trash should be picked up; items not related to harvesting and processing should not be stored in the processing area; and objects above the processing area—pipes, light fixtures, fans and ducts—should be kept clean.

These processing-barn guidelines are just some of the ideas you should implement to boost your GAP compliance and make your food-handling practices safer. Your processing barn and your produce will be better for it.