The importance of worker hygiene for cutting the risk of pathogen contamination stretches back to the pre-harvest level, according to a new study of E. coli in spinach.
The study by researchers from Texas A&M and other universities was published in the July issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology. It’s based on sampling done at a dozen spinach farms in Texas and Colorado.
All but one used handwashing stations and portable toilets, and trained employed workers on their use. It was also the only farm that used its ﬁelds for grazing and hay production before spinach planting.
Other risk factors for E. coli contamination examined include proximity to poultry farms, irrigation by pond water and time since last irrigation.
The multiple variables are analyzed by Renata Ivanek, assistant professor at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and nine co-authors.
Three of the 12 operations were organic, of which two had organic certifications.
“Poor personal hygiene of workers is a well-known risk factor for the microbial contamination of produce growing in ﬁelds or during harvest, postharvest processing, and distribution,” according to the study. “However, to our knowledge no published epidemiological study has shown an association between workers’ hygiene practices and produce contamination rates at the pre-harvest level.”
Despite the presence of other variables, the researchers concluded produce contamination was signiﬁcantly reduced when workers used handwashing stations or when farms provided portable toilets.
“It seems to underscore the importance of conducting risk assessments and implementing strong food safety practices on the farm,” Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said of the findings. “Worker hygiene is, of course, well established and recognized as a key risk area to be addressed in any food safety program. The LGMA’s metrics include requirements that workers thoroughly wash their hands and follow other hygiene good practices.”