I have been thinking a lot about the deaths caused by the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria in cantaloupes this year. The outbreak of listeria made me realize we cannot be too careful to prevent food-borne illness when growing and handling fruit and vegetable crops in our home garden.
Fresh fruits and vegetables once were thought to be free of disease-producing pathogens. However, outbreaks linked to E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Shigella, and Cyclospora on crops are becoming more common. So, how can we minimize contamination risk as we grow our vegetables and get them to the kitchen?
For the home gardener, probably the most common mistake is to put manure directly into the garden before planting. Manure is an excellent fertilizer and soil conditioner. However, even aged manure can have E. coli present. Properly composting manure will kill most of the E. coli. The temperature in the compost pile must reach 130 to 140 degrees F for at least 10 days to kill the disease-causing bacteria.
Root crops and leafy vegetables have the greatest risk of infection from manures in or on the soil. Feces from ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and deer carry E. coli. Make absolutely sure to remove cat or dog feces left in the garden. Dog and cat droppings often contain roundworms and other parasitic nematodes. Cat feces can carry toxoplasmosis, a parasite that infects humans and other animals. Never put dog or cat feces in the compost pile.
Locate your garden away from pet or livestock pens. Check for manure contamination in runoff water from uphill neighbors. Use potable home or well water in preference to surface water from sources that could be contaminated.
After turning your compost pile or moving manure, wash the tools that had direct contact with the manure before you use those same tools in the garden, or better yet, use different tools. Do not use the same buckets, gloves, and other implements for manure handling that you use for crop handling or harvest.
In the kitchen, wash hands thoroughly before working with food. Thoroughly wash raw fruits and vegetables before eating them. Separate and individually wash spinach and lettuce leaves.
Avoid cross-contamination between meats and other foods. Some people use color-coded cutting boards for that purpose: red for red meats, green for vegetables, yellow for chicken, white for fish, etc.
The gardening season is a very long time away, but food safety is important today.
Gary M. Vezzani was elected Walsenburg’s mayor in Tuesday’s special mayoral election/recall vote. Preliminary results announced Tuesday night show that both Nick Vigil in Ward