Finer points of cleaning and sanitizing fruit and vegetable contact surfaces

The Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule requires cleaning and sanitizing harvest containers. Learn how to clean and sanitize, and when it is required under the Produce Safety Rule.

When harvesting produce, all harvest containers need to be clean and sanitary, especially if that produce may be eaten raw. Choosing and managing harvest containers can also help decrease post-harvest losses from scratching and soiling of thin-skinned produce like peaches and summer squash. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule includes requirements for cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces, including harvest containers.

Remember that cleaning and sanitizing are two different things, and cleaning always happens first. Cleaning is the physical removal of dirt and filth, whereas sanitizing is the treatment of a surface to reduce the microbes living on a surface. Dirty surfaces cannot be sanitized. Cleaning always happens first.

According to 21 CFR 112.123(d)(1), “you must inspect, maintain, and clean and, when necessary and appropriate, sanitize all food contact surfaces of equipment and tools used in covered activities as frequently as reasonably necessary to protect against contamination of covered produce.”

There are four steps to cleaning any food contact surface. The surface should be pre-rinsed to remove soil, washed with soap and water, rinsed of soap and water, and then sanitized. If you use disposable, single-use harvest containers, they do not need to be washed and sanitized. If you use any reusable, cleanable containers such as plastic lugs or buckets, they should be clean prior to being filled with produce.

Under FSMA, sanitizing harvest containers is mandatory when switching between excluded produce and covered produce [21 CFR 112.111(b)]. Regardless of FSMA coverage, good agricultural practices (GAPs) include cleaning and sanitizing all direct food contact surfaces before contact with produce.

If you have specific questions about the produce rule or have difficulty tailoring GAPs to your farm, contact the Michigan State University Extension 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 of 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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