The agency made the comments as it published guidance to assist growers with safe production of fresh produce on farms.
Fresh produce (including fresh fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, sprouted seeds, edible flowers and herbs) is an integral part of the diet and popularity and consumption continues to increase, it said.
Microbiological hazards associated with fresh produce relevant to Ireland are pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella spp., Shiga-Toxin E. coli (STEC), Campylobacter spp. and Listeria monocytogenes.
“These pathogens can originate in soil, either naturally or introduced through the addition of soil amendments like slurry, manure or biosolids. Pathogenic bacteria can also be waterborne or introduced via human handling of fresh produce, as well as from ingress of farmed, wild and domestic animals into fields. It is also possible for pathogenic bacteria to be present on seeds,” said the agency.
The eight key areas to help reduce risk and improve food safety
- Choose the right site to grow fresh produce
- Restrict the access of animals, pests and people to that site
- Use organic fertilisers safely
- Use pesticides safely
- Source and use a safe water supply
- Use good harvesting practices
- Train staff and provide good staff facilities
- Put a system of traceability and recall in place
The guidance addresses GHP and GAP in the primary production of fresh produce to help control, or reduce to a safe level, physical, chemical and microbiological hazards.
It was developed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Pesticide Control Laboratory of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Bord Bia; Teagasc; Natures Best; Keelings; Good4U; Musgrave Retail Partners Ireland; Beechlawn Organic Farm; Monaghan Mushrooms and Irish Farmers Association.
Dr Pamela Byrne, chief executive of the FSAI, said anything which comes into contact with fresh produce has the potential to cause contamination.
“A lot of fresh produce is eaten raw such as fruits, vegetables and herbs, so any harmful bugs that may be in the produce will not be removed by cooking. This places a big onus on growers to use good agricultural and hygiene practices to reduce the risk of contamination of fresh produce.”
Fresh produce outbreaks increasing
FSAI said it comes at a time when outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with produce are increasing, as shown by a search of the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed between January 2012 and January 2014 which revealed 25 notifications concerning microbiological contamination.
Examples include, an outbreak of E. coli O157 which sickened 161 people this year investigated by Public Health England (PHE).
Investigations identified mixed salad leaves as the likely cause but the source or how contamination occurred was not known.
Canada, the UK and USA reported cases of Cyclospora infection again this year with imported produce believed to be the source and UK cases associated with travel to Mexico.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) identified fresh produce such as leafy greens; bulb and stem vegetables; tomatoes; melons; fresh pods, legumes or grains; sprouted seeds and berries pose the highest risks to consumers.
Researchers ranked food/pathogen combinations most often linked to illnesses originating from foods of non-animal origin (FoNAO) in the EU.
In 2013, frozen berries caused 240 confirmed cases of hepatitis, with a probable 1,075 further ones across 11 European countries, including Ireland.
The FSAI still advises boiling all frozen imported berries before consumption, as contaminated berries could still be in the food chain.
Guidance involves choosing the right site to grow produce and reduce risk by knowing site history, examining location which includes the risk of flooding (rivers), public access, type of neighbouring farms and knowing the climate including rainfall patterns which can increase the risk of surface water runoff and localised flooding onto lands used to grow fresh produce.
Another area is using good harvesting and post-harvest practices such as having and following cleaning schedules for equipment, tools, containers, storage areas, having post cleaning hygiene inspections to verify cleaning and ensuring vehicles used to transport produce are used for just that purpose.
The work updates a code of practice for the fresh produce supply chain published in 2000.