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Produce is healthy, right? It is if you take essential safety steps in the garden

Kansas City Star - 2/9/2024

When growing your food, significant thought and attention should be put into developing an abundant harvest. You have perfected your soil, managed your pests, inhibited environmental injury — all the necessary items for a good crop, and then some.

However, one factor you may have overlooked is the relationship between how that crop has been handled and food safety. Was it fertilized with manure? Were pets allowed in the plant rows as they grew? Were hands washed before harvesting? These can be potential serious vectors for food-borne illness, and their mitigation methods are simple.

The importance of practicing safety while growing and handling food cannot be understated because the list of bacteria, viruses and parasites that could be contracted from them is immense. Salmonella, E. coli, norovirus, listeria, and hepatitis A are some potentially fatal diseases on the list. So where does the contamination happen? How do we avoid it?

The three most common types of produce that become disease-contaminated are sprouts, leafy greens and melons. What do these all have in common? The crops of the plants grow in direct contact with the soil. They’re not root vegetables, which are obviously covered in soil. But all crops have been in contact with the soil, and as such, proper washing and handling should be at the forefront.

While soil is a vital and necessary component to successful plant growth, the elements that comprise soil are unfortunately less than hygienic. In fact, at its core, soil is composed of decomposed organic matter, minerals and water. Trouble presents itself with the (essential) organic matter and water components, as this is where diseases can thrive.

So, you’ll wash your produce better, using clean water and potentially even some white vinegar. Problem solved, right?

Partially, but the external sources that bring disease to food should also be addressed for complete safety. For example, water used to wash the produce should not be reused to wash other produce. While vegetable gardens and pets often coexist in the same area, pet fecal matter poses a danger to consumption. The recommendation is to fence off the gardens to keep the pets out.

Even with manure — a widespread and traditional form of garden fertilizer and organic matter — health risks exist when it is not correctly managed or applied. The manure should be fully broken down in the soil before crops are planted. This is not only because the soil will initially be so high in nitrogen and ammonia that it will likely burn your plant roots, but it also takes around four months to decompose and merge with the soil, lessening biological hazards.

For this reason, manure incorporation into a vegetable garden should be done long before planting or growing.

The routes of contamination when it comes to produce can be plentiful. Luckily, common sense and a little forethought will take you a long way in protecting your harvest and your health.

Anthony Reardon is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Need help? Contact the Johnson County Extension gardening hotline at 913-715-7050 or email

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