By Hannah Ruth Tabler, NFU Intern

Animals are an essential part of many farms; however, gone unchecked they can potentially be a route for produce contamination. The FDA’s new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has a number of rules, but the Produce Safety Rule directly discusses animals on-farm. It sets forth guidelines for growers dealing with both wild and domesticated animals to minimize their risk of spreading a foodborne illness.

Why do animals pose a risk?

Animals are a risk to produce safety because they can carry and spread human pathogens. Their droppings can contain harmful microorganisms or they can simply spread pathogens already present in the field from one plant to another. Animals are also difficult to control, especially wild animals. While the Produce Safety Rule understands that no grower can guarantee animals will be completely removed from their fields, especially in the case of work animals, it does ask that growers take some steps to manage for animals that pose a risk. Certain actions can be taken to minimize the risks of animals who do enter the field.

The first step is to prevent contamination in the first place. Growers should monitor their fields for the kinds of wildlife that frequent them and choose deterrent methods best suited to deter that animal.

Common deterrent examples include:

  • Decoys
  • Fencing and netting
  • Noise deterrents
  • Trapping and relocating
  • Visual deterrents such as reflective tape or balloons

However, make sure that the deterrent method you choose also works for your larger resource and conservation environment. The Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) curriculum for the Produce Safety Rule encourages the use of co-management practices, or practices that reduce the risk of produce contamination while also ensuring local food, water, and wildlife are not damaged as an effect. Some deterrents can actually increase wildlife activity on-farm, such as the removal of vegetation around the field that animals live in. Once this vegetation is removed, you could accidentally be forcing animals to live in your field. An example of beneficial co-management is the attraction of some predatory animals like birds of prey that can help reduce rodent populations.

When animals are present in your field, whether domesticated or wild, the Produce Safety Rule requires that if significant evidence of potential contamination is found (AKA observation of animals in the field, animal feces, or crop destruction by animals) you must evaluate whether the produce can be harvested. If it seems that the affected produce could be contaminated you must take measures to mark those plants or that produce so they aren’t harvested later in the season. This means if you see animals rooting in your field or eating your crop, you need to decide the level of risk and what, if any, no-harvest buffer zone should be established around this incident.

A no-harvest buffer zone is the defined distance around an identified risk from which produce should not be harvested. This risk can be different pending what time of the growing season animals are seen. An animal seen during the first week of planting poses a different risk than one seen the week of harvest.

For working animals, their presence should be minimized when the edible portion of the crop is present. If they must be used near harvesting, a grower can use established paths that will minimize the contact between the animal and the crop. Additionally, a grower can develop a standard operating procedure explaining how to handle if the work animal defecates in the field. This could involve leaving the feces and establishing a no-harvest buffer zone around it. Other options would be to bury the feces or remove it – if these options are used ensure that all tools are properly cleaned and sanitized afterward.

Any of these methods can help protect both your farm and your habitat. The PSA hosts Grower Trainings that teach farmers the requirements of the Produce Safety Rule. Wild and domesticated animals are just one topic covered in this training – it also highlights many other complexities of managing food safety on the farm. Assessing food safety risks on the farm in all forms is vital to keeping produce safe and healthy so LFSC encourages you to consider taking a training. Upcoming trainings can be found under our Upcoming Events tab.

What kinds of steps has your farm taken to avoid produce contamination from animals? Let us know in the comments below!