COVID-19 and food safety: Common questions from fruit and vegetable growers

Novel coronavirus, the virus that causes the infectious disease COVID-19, is on every grower’s mind. Here are answers to common questions about how to approach handwashing and sanitation on produce farms.

Handwashing station
Handwashing stations don’t need to be fancy to be effective. Photo by Anne Sawyer and Annalisa Hultberg, University of Minnesota Extension.

Both large and small fresh produce growers have lots of questions about how novel coronavirus, the virus that causes the infectious disease COVID-19, will affect how they do business in the near term. With regards to food safety and foodborne illness, the following questions are some of the most common.

What kind of baseline sanitation practices should I be doing because of the virus? What needs to be sanitized?

Please understand these are the baseline sanitation practices you should be doing under all circumstances. These practices are important food safety and can extend a product’s shelf life.

All food contact surfaces, often referred to as Zone 1 surfaces, should be clean. These surfaces include harvest bins, sorting tables, harvest tools, hands and much more. For these surfaces, clean means visibly free of dirt. If you scratch a surface with your fingernail and gunk comes up, the surface isn’t clean enough. Zone 1 surfaces should also be sanitized with a sanitizer labeled for food contact surfaces and air-dried until completely dry.

Zone 2 surfaces (adjacent to direct food contact surfaces) should also be cleaned and sanitized. This is because there is reasonable probability that dirt and microbes on these surfaces will get onto Zone 1 surfaces.

Do I need to worry about having the virus on my produce? Should I be using sanitizer on my crops?

As of March 17, 2020, there has been no known transmission of the novel coronavirus through fresh produce (verified 3-19-20) That said, for many commodities you might want to think about adding sanitizer (PAA, Chlorine, etc.) to your wash water for increased shelf life. As always, read and follow label rates and directions. It is a violation of federal law to use any sanitizer in a manner inconsistent with its label.

For a deeper dive into whether or not COVID-19 is a food safety issue, check out the fact sheet, “COVID-19 and Food Safety FAQ: Is Coronavirus a Food Safety Issue?” (verified March 19, 2020) from North Carolina State University and University of Florida.

What sanitizers are out there for me to use?

Sanitizers are pesticides used for controlling microbes. Like other pesticides, there will be more brand names and formulations than you can possibly list. There are some important considerations that can help you wade through options.

First, think about what you are trying to sanitize. Some products can be used on food contact surfaces, while others can be used in process waters that directly contact produce (think dunk tank and wash water). The product you use must be labelled for how you intend to use it.

If you are sanitizing a food contact surface, make sure the product you are selecting is compatible with the material. Mismatches can cause surfaces and equipment to break down and corrode. For plastics, PAA or chlorine is good. For metals, quaternary ammonia is more appropriate. A helpful comparison chart to help you think about the right sanitizer for the job can be found in “Comparison of Various Sanitizers” (verified March 19, 2020) from Michigan State University Extension.

If you are certified organic, there are still products available. The below list from Cornell University has information on which products are OMRI-listed. Check in with your organic certifier before adding a new product to your process.

A good list to start with has been developed by the Produce Safety Alliance at Cornell University. This list is a general-purpose list and not meant to direct you to sanitizers that are effective specifically against the novel coronavirus, but it can help you sort through some options with the above considerations in mind. Download the Produce Safety Alliance List of Labeled Sanitizers for Produce. You can also watch a video tutorial with directions on how to use the Cornell spreadsheet.

Another resource that can help you find sanitizers and disinfectants that are specifically effective against the novel coronavirus is from the EPA, “List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2.”

Although COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, and unlikely to be transmitted through food and food packaging, growers rely on resources available to them, including the Produce Safety Alliance sanitizer tool, to answer their questions. The Produce Safety Alliance sanitizer tool and the EPA novel coronavirus list were created for different reasons and they project different information. When in doubt in reference to COVID-19, please use the EPA list.

With all this focus on handwashing, I think I need a few handwashing stations on and around my farm. How do I add handwashing stations without going broke?

It is possible to build a low-cost, gravity-fed handwash station for less than $50. The components are widely available and the setup can be easily customized to use materials you may already have around the farm. You can find plans in “How to Build a Low-cost Handwashing Station” (verified March 19, 2020) from University of Minnesota Extension from this link.

You can also follow instructions to build a foot pump option (verified March 19, 2020). Note that you will need to add somewhere for paper towels to be dispensed and disposed of.

More information on COVID-19 and the food chain

In an effort to get better information out to growers and others in the supply chain, a number of universities have come up with fact sheets to inform different groups in the food system about COVID-19 best practices. Scientific understanding of COVID-19 is evolving, and the linked fact sheets will be updated as new science-based information is available.

Resources for retailers

Resources for U-Picks

Resources for farm market managers

Resources for food banks

Resources for community gardens

Additional information tailored to small growers can be found in “Considerations for Fruit and Vegetable Growers Related to Coronavirus & COVID-19” from the University of Vermont.

If you have specific questions about food safety in the age of COVID-19 or have difficulty tailoring GAPs or FSMA to your farm, contact the Agrifood Safety Work Group at or 517-788-4292.

Funding for this article was made possible, in part, by the Food and Drug Administration through grant PAR-16-137. The views expressed in the written materials do not necessarily reflect the official policies if the Department of Health and Human Services; nor does any mention of trade names, commercial practices or organization imply endorsement by the United States Government.

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