Harvest container hygiene: More than just washing totes

Getting reusable plastic containers clean requires effort. This effort can be wasted without hygienic handling of the clean containers.

We often take for granted the totes and lugs that collect and carry produce from the field to packing areas and, ultimately, to those people that eat it. From a food safety perspective, all surfaces that contact produce, from the time it is harvested until it leaves the custody of the farm, should be either new or sanitized. It is generally accepted that all reusable plastic containers (RPCs) be sanitized before use, but what happens after sanitizing is just as important.

Air drying is a necessary step after the RPC is treated with sanitizer. This allows the active ingredient in the sanitizer to dissipate before the container is used. After the container is air dried, it needs to be stored in a way that does not re-contaminate the container prior to use. The easiest way is to cover a stack of sanitized RPCs in storage on a pallet or other platform off the floor.

Another critical point with regards to sanitary RPC use is in the field. Many farms stack filled containers on one another. When this practice is used, it is important to pay attention to the cleanliness of the bottoms of each RPC in the field. When RPCs are placed on the ground, they pick up mud or other filth that can then contaminate the contents of the RPC below them. By placing a sheet of plywood or an upturned “sacrifice” RPC in the field for RPCs to set on, or having a “no set down” policy, a farm that stacks RPCs can ensure the bottoms of stacked RPCs are clean at a minimum of effort.

If you have specific questions about keeping harvest containers clean or have difficulty tailoring GAPs to you farm, contact the Agrifood Safety Work Group at gaps@msu.edu or 517-788-4292. To obtain a step-by-step guide about writing a harvest container cleaning protocol, ask for Guidance Document AFSM014-01.

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