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Reducing Microbial Hazards in Raw Produce through Farm Worker Education


The objective of this project is to develop a comprehensive, yet practical and meaningful, food safety education and training program for farm workers. Educating farm workers about microbial risks that occur on the farm is important for reducing microbial risks to both workers and the produce they pick and package.

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Farm workers can unintentionally contaminate fresh produce, water supplies, and other workers, if they do not understand and follow the basic rules of health, good personal hygiene, and hygienic work practices. Farm workers are both food handlers and consumers and represent a high-risk, under-served population. Since many farm workers have had little formal education, they may be unaware of what microorganisms are, where they are found, and how infection occurs, yet they can spread microbial pathogens to the fruits and vegetables that they harvest, grade, and pack. Farm workers are often exposed to pathogens in the field, since they often come in contact with soil, manure, and irrigation water that may be contaminated. By educating farm workers about microbial pathogens, where they exist, and how they are transmitted, these workers would be less likely to contaminate the produce they handle. In addition to working on the farm, many workers live in camps on the farm and share communal kitchens with other farm labor families. Proper food handling techniques are very important in these situations because a family that does not properly clean counters and utensils after preparing raw meat can contaminate ready-to-eat foods and cause foodborne illness. By reducing exposure to pathogens at home, workers will be less likely to get sick and less likely to contaminate the fresh fruits and vegetables they harvest and pack during the day. Only by knowing the risks, can farm workers be expected to avoid them and reduce the likelihood of contaminating produce.
The incidence of foodborne illnesses related to the consumption of fruits and vegetables has doubled over the last two decades. Humans are a major source of food contamination. The purpose of this project is to develop a comprehensive food safety education and training program for farm workers to inform them about microbial risks and how to reduce microbial contamination of produce.
Culturally appropriate educational materials for farm workers will be developed. These will include several 10 - 15 minute video tapes, posters, written materials, and photo-novelas in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole regarding the importance of good health, and good personal hygiene, including hand washing and the use of hygienic practices. Using the train-the-trainer workshop model, Cooperative Extension Educators, as well as the staff of agencies and organizations that serve farm workers, will be prepared to conduct educational programs on food safety for farm workers. The program will be initially targeted to the 47,000 farm and packinghouse workers in New York State and then will be shared with collaborators throughout the U.S. The model educational program developed in New York will also be shared with agencies that serve farm workers and will be presented at the annual conferences of migrant education and health organizations throughout the U.S. To determine the effectiveness and impact of this project, behavioral changes by farm workers, such as the use of toilets while harvesting and packing produce and washing hands at appropriate times, will be documented and evaluated. This is an interdisciplinary project including faculty from the Department of Human Development in the College of Human Ecology and from the Department of Education and the Department of Food Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Additionally, the project will collaborate with universities throughout the U.S. and the coalitions of agencies serving farm workers.
The following year supported by a no-cost extension has allowed for the completion of many in progress publications and projects. The materials having the biggest impact on farm workers are the worker training video entitled Fruits, Vegetables, and Food Safety: Health and Hygiene on the Farm (Frutas, Hortalizas ye la Seguridad de los Alimentos: Salud e Higiene en el Campo) and the Spanish translation of Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Growers Guide (La Seguridad de los Alimentos Empieza en el Campo: Una Guia para el Productor). The translation of this very important booklet finally makes the content available to workers in their native language. The 15-minute video available in English and Spanish in both VHS and DVD formats covers health and hygiene issues that directly effect farm workers in the fields and packinghouses. It emphasizes their importance and their role in protecting their own health as well as preventing the contamination of fruits and vegetables they harvest and pack. The video was tested in focus groups with farm workers and growers and edited to modify both format and content changes suggested by these constituents. In August 2004 at the 91st Annual International Association for Food Protection, a presentation on farm worker hygiene and the availability of field toilets and handwashing facilities was presented. In addition, the training video was screened by researchers and extension personnel to publicize its availability. Educational materials still in progress include a photo-novela series and a coloring book for farm worker children. The photo-novela series is well underway with two of the three scripts written with photos. Field testing is about to commence and final direction of the third script is under review due to comments from focus group participants. A first draft of the coloring book is complete and organization of the field testing is underway. Both of these projects will be complete by the Summer of 2005. In addition to these two projects, a packinghouse sanitation video is being planned in cooperation with the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. The farm worker training video has been very successful but is focused on field related issues in addition to the focus on worker health and hygiene. There is a need for a training video that addresses issues specific to packinghouse practices because they present different challenges and resources.
Producing educational materials that highlight the important role of farm workers in the production of safe, wholesome fresh fruits and vegetables is one way to assist farm workers with recognizing how they impact produce food safety. Understanding the importance of proper handwashing and good personal hygiene allows farm workers to protect their own health and play an active role in an on-farm food safety program. In the production of educational materials, it is important to understand worker literacy and cultural issues to create effective teaching tools. By utilizing focus groups and field testing educational materials, farm worker thoughts and opinions have been gathered and incorporated into these GAPs educational materials. The impact of having farm workers actively participate in the development and testing of educational materials has been an increased understanding of challenges and cultural norms that directly impact health and hygiene habits. Developing effective educational materials that increase farm worker understanding and implementation of proper hygiene practices will reduce microbial risks to the fruits and vegetables they harvest and pack.

Gravani, Robert
Cornell University
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