What Fruit and Vegetable Growers Should Know About COVID-19

field of green tomatoes

Like every other sector of the economy, fruit and vegetable growers are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are some questions that are specific to growers, such as whether they need to take additional steps to ensure their produce is safe. (I don’t want to spoil the ending, but take heart, consumers — your produce is in good hands.)

To address some of those questions, we reached out to Chris Gunter, a professor of horticultural science at NC State and vegetable production specialist in NC Extension.

The Abstract: What are cleaning and sanitizing steps that fruit and vegetable growers should be thinking about for produce safety?

Chris Gunter: The good news is that farms are already doing the things they need to do to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, and that extends to COVID-19. Specifically, growers should already be carrying out four important steps in the cleaning and sanitation process. Those are:

1) Removing obvious dirt and debris from any surface that contacts the harvested crop (food-contact surfaces).

2) Applying proper detergents and scrubbing the surface to remove any buildup of biofilms, carbohydrates or proteins.

3) Rinsing the surface with clean water to make sure all detergent and soils are removed.

4) Applying a sanitizer approved for use on food-contact surfaces according to the label directions. It’s important to note that not all surfaces can be sanitized, depending on the material they’re made of. Make sure your food-contact surface is compatible with the sanitizer you choose.

TA: Is COVID-19 a foodborne illness?

Gunter: COVID-19 is spread primarily via close person-to-person contact, or when virus-containing droplets expelled during coughing or talking contaminate a surface that is later touched by a healthy individual. While most feed and supply stores continue to operate during disease outbreaks and other emergencies, preventive steps can be taken to protect the health of employees and customers. [Editor’s Note: A more in-depth Q&A on COVID-19 and food safety can be found here.]

TA: Should fruit and vegetable growers be disinfecting the equipment they use for packing their produce?

Gunter: It may be appropriate to use a disinfectant on the farm or in the packing environment.

When disinfection of packing equipment is necessary, chemical disinfectants are used at particularly high concentrations – concentrations high enough to destroy bacteria, viruses and fungi. And these concentrations are the same as those used on surfaces that may be contaminated with infectious microbes like coronavirus or other contaminants. In many cases, these surfaces will include frequently touched surfaces that come in contact with people, rather than food-contact surfaces used in packing-house activities such as washing and sorting of produce. These high touch areas might include door knobs, cash registers, equipment control panels, electronic devices, etc.

It is important to know that a farmer who chooses to disinfect a food-contact surface must follow the label on the product. Just like all pesticides, these products have an EPA label and that label is the law. To be clear, these concentrations of disinfectant are for surfaces – not for use on the food itself.

TA: What do I need to know about COVID-19 with regard to my employees and farm visitors?

Gunter: If you have reason to believe the food-contact surfaces on your farm have become contaminated with coronavirus, you should be cleaning and following standard disinfecting procedures for those surfaces according to the directions on the label of the disinfectant you’re using. Any such contamination may be due to an ill worker or visitor coming into contact with these surfaces. The CDC recommends using one of the compounds EPA has approved for disinfecting surfaces contaminated with viruses.

You should also contact and coordinate with your local health department, which will want to trace employees and visitors that may have coronavirus disease.

This post was originally published in NC State News.

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