Hearing the word “outbreak” makes many people anxious. E. coli O157:H7, spinach, 2006. Salmonella, peanut butter, 2009. Listeria, cantaloupe, 2011. Diane Hirsch, UConn Extension educator for food safety, easily lists previous food-borne pathogen outbreaks. But, fear does not paralyze her.
Instead, she works in classrooms and on farms to make sure that locally produced food, which ends up on tables in New England, is as safe as possible. Her mission: “Safe food handling from farm to table.” Her audience includes growers who put produce in boxes on their farms, commercial artisanal cheese makers and home cooks who preserve food in their kitchens.
With the help of over $82,000 in USDA grants, Hirsch trains farmers to follow Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and processors to develop food safety plans. She labors to see farm products that are, according to USDA, “produced, packed, handled, and stored in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.”
Because of past outbreaks, grocery store chains that buy food from farmers are putting more pressure on them to follow food safety guidelines and submit to voluntary audits. Hirsch estimates that 12 to 14 Connecticut farmers are currently GAP audited. She wants her training programs and farm visits to increase that number by “helping people do what they need to do” in reducing the possibility of contamination and preparing for audits.
Making a Change
Hirsch urges farmers to “think of themselves as food processors” and to realize that “small and local doesn’t mean safe.” Sometimes, these are difficult concepts for people to grasp. However, Hirsch and her collaborators hope to overcome the reticence to change.
With a USDA/NIFA/AFRI $10,571 grant, Hirsch and University of Vermont researchers are studying economic factors that keep those who operate New England’s small and medium sized farms from adopting food safety practices. Hirsch has already observed that many small operations cannot afford to build new packing houses. In these situations, she suggests inexpensive modifications to existing facilities and equipment in order to keep the processed food safe for consumption.
Seeing the Importance
Another component of Hirsch’s work is to emphasize the ethical and financial realities for farmers. They cannot afford to be lax with sanitation. One outbreak could sicken many people and, if traced back to a particular farm, it could ruin a business’s reputation. To define and address the need for improved sanitation practices in packing houses, Hirsch obtained $26, 259 in funding from Connecticut Department of Agriculture/USDA Specialty Crops.
As part of this project, Hirsch and her UConn colleagues visited eight consenting Connecticut farms to check for biological hazards like Salmonella and Listeria. Although the researchers did not find the dreaded E. coli O157:H7 when they tested areas like food contact surfaces and floors, they did discover harmful organisms. “Initial results have been received indicating that there are concerns regarding sanitation in all of the packing houses tested,” Hirsch said. She hopes that these discoveries will motivate farmers to learn more about GAP and to implement measures that prevent outbreaks.
Learning about safety
In addition to working with farm operators and packing house owners, Hirsch teaches a course to people who are making food in on-farm kitchens for sale at their farm stands or markets. Food entrepreneurs who want to make acidified (or pickled) foods on-farm need to be aware of the food safety risks and safe food handling practices when processing these foods in a home kitchen.
As part of a $45,271 USDA/Extension Risk Management Education/Northeast Region grant, Hirsch and a University of Rhode Island food scientist, Lori Pivarnik, present the course. They help the students evaluate the benefits and liabilities of value-added processing. For example, adding an acidic liquid, like vinegar, when processing certain foods is an important way to limit the growth of microorganisms and prevent outbreaks, but it must be done properly to keep the food safe.
Hirsch thinks there is still much food safety work to be done. She said, “Unfortunately, foodborne illness is not going away and whether we grow food, process it in a food plant, sell it at a grocery store or restaurant or prepare it at home for our family, we all have a responsibility to learn about how food can make us sick and more importantly, how to prevent foodborne illness.” Yet, Hirsch has fearless hope when she says “Every day is a new adventure in this business—and it keeps my work interesting!”
In addition to her work with farmers and processors, Hirsch educates home cooks, consumers and food service personnel through a website, courses or workshops. To learn more about food safety from farm to table, visit UConn’s Safe Food in Connecticut website, which is maintained by Hirsch.
By Patsy Evans