Today is National Ag Day, which is a time to recognize the farmers, producers, associations, businesses, and universities that contribute to agriculture. It’s also a time to think about the hard work and effort that goes into producing safe and sustainable food to our nation.

On behalf of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, I would like to extend our thanks and appreciation to all farmers for working hard to bring safe food to local tables.

What is food safety?

Food safety is the act of taking preventative measures to reduce the risk of people from getting sick from food that was mishandled at any point throughout the food supply chain (for example: growing, harvesting, packing, processing, cooling, etc.). This will differ depending on which step the company is in the supply chain, but overall, all companies have the same end goal in mind: keeping you, the consumer, safe.

Why is food safety needed in agriculture?

Providing safe food for consumers is paramount for farmers and farming companies in the Imperial Valley. There is strong motivation for the prioritization of food safety since farmers’ families and friends eat the food they grow. But in addition to this obvious motivation, there are federal and state laws mandating best practices and implementation of food safety standards as well as industry initiatives to benefit and protect consumers.

What are Imperial Valley farmers doing to keep food safety a top priority?

All produce growers follow the Produce Safety Rule, which are science-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. This rule requires farmers to adhere to best practices, which include water quality and water testing standards, the use of soil amendments, management of domestic animals and wildlife, employee training, among other practices. Compliance with these best practices is verified through on-farm government audits.

Specific to leafy greens (that is, lettuce and spinach), Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) is a voluntary program whose goal is to assure safe leafy greens and confidence in our food safety programs. We are incredibly proud that most, if not all, growers in the Imperial Valley follow LGMA guidelines. This means the vast majority of leafy greens producers in the Imperial Valley have invited government auditors into their fields and farms to ensure they are following required food-safety practices. The system has, in fact, made leafy greens safer because the program focuses on putting food safety first. The mandatory government audits require 100 percent compliance with all food-safety checkpoints, and all citations must be corrected. This system drives continuous improvement and establishes a culture of food safety in which everyone from the top-down is focused on prevention.

Farmers and farming company employees have access to ongoing food safety education through seminars and webinars conducted by produce associations (such as IVVGA), LGMA, USDA, and others. In fact, many produce companies have entire departments devoted to food safety practice implementation and continuous improvement and evolution of their practices.

What can I do to keep my food safe?

Following four simple steps at home can help protect you and your loved ones from food poisoning. Clean, sperate, cook, and chill.







Clean




1. Clean: Wash your hands and surfaces often.

  • Germs that cause food poisoning can survive in many places and spread around your kitchen.
  • Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating.
  • Wash your utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water.






Separate




2. Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate.

  • Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs can spread germs to ready-to-eat foods— unless you keep them separate.
  • Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • When grocery shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and their juices away from other foods.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from all other foods in the refrigerator.






Cook




3. Cook to the right temperature.

  • Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature gets high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. The only way to tell if food is safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. You can’t tell if food is safely cooked by checking its color and texture (except for seafood).
  • Use a food thermometer to ensure foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature. Follow recommended cooking and standing times, to allow for additional cooking after microwaving stops. Letting food sit for a few minutes after microwaving allows cold spots to absorb heat from hotter areas and cook more completely.






Chill




4. Chill: Refrigerate promptly.

Bacteria can multiply rapidly if left at room temperature or in the “Danger Zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Divide warm foods into several clean, shallow containers so they will chill faster.
  • Refrigerate perishable food within two hours. If the food is exposed to temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (like a hot car or picnic), refrigerate it within one hour.
  • Thaw frozen food safely in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Never thaw foods on the counter because bacteria multiply quickly in the parts of the food that reach room temperature.

Where can I learn more?

Because food safety must always evolve and improve, this is a road the produce industry will continually travel, along with state and federal government agencies, scientists and researchers as well as retailers and restaurant chains, as we work to provide healthy fruits and vegetables from our farms to your families. By following different regulatory agencies such as USDA, LGMA, FDA, and even organizations such as IVVGA, you can stay better informed of the ever-changing food safety guidelines. For more information, please reach out to me at shelby@ivvga.com.

Shelby Trimm is the executive director of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.

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