Recently I received information from the University of Minnesota about food safety practices. I have always been very careful about not using pesticides on vegetables, and if using any near my vegetable garden, I was sure to read the label and abide by directions.

However, in reading this, there was some information that I felt important to pass along. Anne Sawyer, PhD, Extension Educator for On-Farm Food Safety, is the person giving out this information.

She mentions that we know we need to wash hands before preparing food in the kitchen and keeping raw meat separate from other foods. Food safety practices also apply to your garden — our garden is an extension of our kitchen.

Much of the produce we harvest from our gardens is eaten raw: lettuce, carrots, peppers, and tomatoes, to name a few. When produce is eaten raw, any nasty germs (pathogens) that may be on it can be transferred to anybody who eats the produce, making them sick.

Food safety is particularly important when we are growing and sharing our garden's bounty with other people. Pathogens can come from several places, such as:

  • Wild and domestic animals (birds, deer, cows, or pets, for example);

  • Using non-potable or dirty water on produce, hands, or equipment;

  • Soil amendments like manure or manure-based compost;

  • Dirty harvest tools or containers, such as knives or harvest buckets;

  • From the hands of those who are picking or otherwise touching the produce.

Anyone who is touching produce should always wash their hands first, using clean, potable water and soap. Note that hand sanitizers are not an adequate substitute for handwashing in the garden, because dirt on your hands will absorb the sanitizer and make it useless against germs.

Be on the lookout for signs of animal activity in your garden before and during harvest. Some signs of animal activity may include bite marks or missing produce, bird droppings, dog or other animal feces, or trampled plants. Never pick anything that has visible contamination such as bird droppings — remember, once it's there, it can be impossible to wash off.

It's a good idea to clean and, ideally, sanitize your harvest equipment before use. Clean with soap and sanitize by using a bleach solution (2 tsp bleach per gallon of water).

If you are washing produce, be sure to use clean, potable (drinkable) water. Washing under running water is ideal. Peppers and tomatoes don’t need to be washed until right before eating.

When you harvest, try not to set fresh produce back on the ground. You never know what may have been on that ground before you — mice, birds or the neighbor's cat.

Also, avoid picking up produce that you accidentally drop. Bruises and cuts can be places for pathogens to reside and multiply.

If possible, try to harvest in the morning, before produce has a chance to warm in the sun. Not only will your fresh produce last longer if it's cooled and stored properly, but most pathogens that can make us sick prefer warm conditions, so cooling can help prevent the multiplication and spread of germs among freshly picked produce.

She doesn’t mention apples or other fruit, but this information would be apply to fruit as well, especially if you have a spray routine on your apples.