Is homegrown food safer? Only if gardeners take precautions

Food safety often is cited as the primary reason why people grow their own edibles, but that’s frequently an illusion. Food-borne illnesses are almost as likely to be caused by homegrown produce as by fresh foods acquired elsewhere.

“The odds are better there won’t be any contamination from the things we grow ourselves, but no fresh foods are safe,” said Jeanne Brandt, a family and community health specialist with Oregon State University Extension. “Gardening and cooking are a food safety continuum. Safety must be considered with every step in the process, from pre-planting to placing meals on the table.”

Surveys have shown that home gardeners don’t understand that soil, compost, human and animal manure, and water are potential sources of disease-causing bacteria that can contaminate produce. Instead, “they were most concerned about chemical contamination,” Brandt said.

Food safety starts with the right vegetable-garden location.

“You want to know what’s been on that (planting) space,” Brandt said. “Did the previous owner have a lawn there that could have been exposed to lots of chemicals? Was there any runoff from roads or driveways? Was it a place where people walked their dogs? Those questions also apply to community gardens.”

Many novice gardeners haven’t embraced routines aimed at keeping their garden spaces orderly and their hands and tools cleaned, Brandt said.

Almost half of all food illness outbreaks in the United States are caused by fresh produce. That largely means greens, lettuces and row-crop vegetables eaten raw. Children, the elderly and pregnant women are most at risk.

But some simple practices can be used to reduce the risks of produce contamination, and prevent food-borne illnesses in the garden as well as the kitchen. Consider:

— Soil amendments. “Composted or aged manure or other soil amendments containing any animal components such as manure, meat, egg shells or bones are not recommended for gardens as they may not be thoroughly processed and thus contain food-borne pathogens,” said Sanja Ilic, an assistant professor and food-safety specialist with Ohio State University Extension. Compost prepared from grass clippings or plant trimmings are good alternatives.

— Irrigating. City water is safest because it’s usually treated. “Drip irrigation is the safest way to apply the irrigation water because there is no direct contact with the edible portion of the produce,” Ilic said.

— Restricting wildlife, poultry and pets, whose feces carry food-borne pathogens.

— Preventing cross-contamination from dirty tools and table surfaces when harvesting. “Always wash your hands before entering the garden or harvesting; after handling compost, plant debris or garbage; after touching a pet or farm animal; and after using the toilet,” Ilic said.

— Storage. “Washed produce should be dried before storage,” Ilic said. “Berries, broccoli and similar should be washed only prior to serving, to avoid mould development.

“Cooking is a highly effective step in destroying bacteria that might be there,” Brandt said.

Public health officials say there isn’t much you can do to treat food-borne disorders, but it’s important to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Stay hydrated until the ailment passes. Some over-the-counter meds may help stop diarrhea.

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Online:

For more about reducing the risk of contaminating the food grown in your garden, see this University of California Master Gardener tip sheet: http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8366.pdf

You can contact Dean Fosdick at deanfosdick@netscape.net

Dean Fosdick, The Associated Press

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