Grow It and Eat It but Make Sure It’s Safe

With the snow in the forecast this week it’s hard to believe that it’s time to begin planning, preparing and even planting your vegetable garden. To make sure your produce is safe to eat it is important to understand some basic principles of food safety.  Food safety risks can develop in the garden, in storage or during the preparation of food.  Today marks the first day I will be presenting on food safety topics for vegetable gardening and we will begin by focusing on an introduction to food safety.  My next blog posts will discuss best practices for gardening, storing, preparing and preserving produce to minimize food safety risks.  Later posts will focus on more specific topics and will likely be based on frequently asked questions. Each blog post will focus on some general information and will provide links to where you can find trusted sources of more information.
Food safety risks fall into one of three categories: physical, chemical or biological. Physical hazards can include a physical object introduced into the growing process that somehow ends up in the food we eat or a piece of hair that falls into a salad bowl during preparation. One time I used some free county compost in my vegetable garden. I noticed that there were pieces of plastic in the compost. Even though I washed my salad greens a little tiny bit of plastic ended up in my salad. Needless to say I never used that compost again. The best way to minimize physical hazards is to keep an eye out for objects that don’t belong and to immediately clean up any broken tool pieces, splintered wood from raised beds or other objects and make sure any harvesting containers are sanitized and free of debris. 
Chemical risks in the garden could come from the improper use of garden chemicals like pesticides or herbicides. Chemical hazards can occur in the kitchen when food comes in contact with common household chemicals that are not intended for human consumption. Chemicals can also be introduced through soil and water which is why it is so essential to do soil tests and make sure water is potable, or fit for human consumption.   See the links below for more information on soil testing.
Biological hazards are a common food safety risk that lead to foodborne illness (food poisoning) caused by pathogenic microorganisms (AKA germs). They can be bacterial, viral or fungal in nature and can be introduced at any point from garden to table.  In the garden environment they are often associated with fecal matter whether from animal droppings left near growing food or by using manure that was not properly composted. During harvest and preparation microorganisms can come into contact with food if hands, containers or surfaces are not properly washed and sanitized.  We will go into much more detail about preventing biological hazards in the growing environment in my next post. 
Luckily, utilizing your common sense is the best way to avoid food safety risks in the garden but it doesn’t hurt to seek out more information and increase your understanding of food safety. Stay tuned for more food safety related gardening posts. I’ll be posting on the 20th of each month. Here are some online resources for more information and to keep you busy until my next blog post:

North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. “Food Safety for School and Community Gardens”

University of Maryland Extension. “Lead in Garden Soils.”

University of Maryland Extension. “Selecting and Using a Soil Testing Laboratory.”
Colorado State University Extension. “Preventing E. coli From Garden to Plate.”

One Comment on “Grow It and Eat It but Make Sure It’s Safe

  1. Using compost or other organic material which has been purchased always creates questions regarding its composition and potential health impacts. As a MG I always try to direct clients toward compost products which have been tested and meet Maryland Department of Agriculture standards. There are two sources of tested compost that I know about. One is Leafgro, a product thet has been on the market for several years and the other is a product being produced at Howard County's Alpha Ridge Landfill. This product is produced by Howard County's Pilot Composting Facility and is generated using food wastes and other organic materials collected around the county.

    After processing using an engineered static pile composting system, the finished compost is tested and the lab results for the most recent batch are are available through the County. To find out more about the facility, where to purchase this compost and the results of the lab tests, simply search for Howard County – Pilot Composting Facility. A link to the latest lab results are about half way down the webpage.


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