Food Safety in the Garden

by Ann Barnes

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 Americans become ill from contaminated food each year. These illnesses are caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that come in contact with food or beverages. Although you may think that the greatest risk of food-borne illness is from meat products or spoiled mayonnaise left on a sunny picnic table, a number of cases have been linked to fruits and vegetables. As gardeners, we can reduce the risk of food-borne illness from produce we grow by following good sanitation practices.

If you are planning a new garden at your home or thinking of starting a community garden, you can begin preventing food-borne illness before a single seed is planted just by choosing the right site. Look up the history of your site – industrial sites have a potential for contamination. Don’t choose a site that has a history of flooding or is downhill from a potential source of contamination, such as a parking lot, animal pen, compost bin, or dumpster.

A soil test is always a good idea, both for new and existing garden locations. Knowing the results of a soil test will help you choose only the amendments you need for your garden, which will save money and reduce runoff of potentially polluting fertilizers. Always follow instructions on the labels of all fertilizers, pesticides, and soil amendments.

The ideal garden site should have a source of water nearby. Water used in food gardens should be safe to drink (potable). Clean, safe water (such as city water or well water) should be used for watering food crops as well as for hand washing. Water from rain barrels, ponds, and rivers could be contaminated with disease causing organisms, making it better suited for watering ornamental plants rather than food. If there is not a source of potable water nearby, have your non-potable water source tested for disease causing organisms regularly.

Animals in the garden can contaminate soil with their waste, so you may want to fence your garden so that pets and wildlife are less likely to enter. Using animal repellents may be necessary to deter animals that are not kept out by a fence. If you use manure as a fertilizer, make sure that edible parts of plants do not touch the soil. Straw or mulch can be used to protect plants.

Prior to harvesting, thoroughly wash hands with soap and clean water, then dry with clean disposable towels. If water is not available for washing, wear garden gloves when working and wear single-use disposable gloves while harvesting. Alcohol based hand sanitizers can reduce the risk of contaminating food at harvest, but they are not effective at killing all disease-causing organisms (for example, Norovirus). Sanitizers are not sufficient if hands are visibly dirty. The CDC recommends these guidelines to effectively wash hands:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

The tools you use to harvest should also be cleaned to reduce the risk of pathogens being spread throughout the garden. If possible, wash harvesting tools as you would wash items in your home kitchen. If kitchen facilities aren’t available, wash and sanitize tools using a bleach solution (1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water). Put harvested food into clean, sanitized containers or clean single use bags. All produce should be properly stored once harvested, and washed before eating.

With a little extra care, you can enjoy all the fresh produce your garden provides, without fear of food-borne illnesses.


Food Safety for School And Community Gardens (NC Cooperative Extension publication)