When it comes to produce safety, much of the risk is caused by things a grower could never see with the naked eye. Last week we talked about the risks bacteria pose to produce and strategies to reduce the risks associated with them. This week we’re moving on to another hard to see and common pathogen connected with foodborne illness, viruses.

Viruses are small particles of nucleic acid that require a host to reproduce and can often be spread through food. Viruses can be 10 to 100 times smaller than bacteria and are not visible under a normal microscope. Because they need a host to reproduce, viruses are usually spread by people handling food when they have not properly washed their hands or are ill, though water is also linked to the spread of viruses. Unfortunately, once a virus is present on produce it can remain stable in the environment. Which means it won’t be affected by many of the same conditions that affect bacteria.

Two common examples of viruses that can contaminate produce include Norovirus and Hepatitis A. Norovirus is one of the most common causes of food-related outbreaks in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Norovirus causes “about 50% of all outbreaks of food-related illness…”.  The most commonly effected foods that spread Norovirus are leafy greens such as lettuce, fresh fruits, and shellfish as they are often consumed raw. However, Norovirus is hardy and can survive temperatures up to 140ºF.

Since only a few virus particles are needed to make someone ill (fewer than 100) and they are easily spread through the environment and from person to person the important thing with viruses is to prevent contamination in the first place.

Those that handle fresh produce should practice proper handwashing and restroom use. This includes washing hands after using the toilet, before harvest or general produce handling, and any other time that hands may become dirty. Hand sanitizers may be used in addition to hand washing but cannot be substituted for it.

It is equally important to report worker illness to a manager. If a farm or food service worker does not report symptoms of infection to a supervisor, they could risk infecting anything that they contact. Viruses like norovirus are highly contagious and can linger on clothing and other surfaces in addition to one’s hands. If ill, a worker should stay away from fresh produce until no longer contagious. Always be diligent in reporting symptoms and preventing further contamination.

There are limited options for effective sanitizers that work against viruses further underscoring the importance of prevention rather than reaction when it comes to this type of pathogen.

Have any other ideas to prevent the spread of viruses via fresh produce? Let us know in the comment section. Stay tuned next week when we cover parasites

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