With recent headlines, including a national recall of romaine lettuce, more people are thinking about where their food comes from and how it's grown.
Many people grow their own food, in part because of the contamination risks associated with purchased produce.
While home-grown food isn't necessarily safer than store-bought, growing your own does offer more control over the production and transportation of the food.
“Those big farms in California, and such, have a lot of money and do a lot of testing and in theory they can do everything right, ideally,” says Matthew Merritt, owner of Atoms Acres Family Farm in Fort Wayne, which produces vegetables all year long. “But one mistake and it becomes a big problem.”
A recent outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce left nearly 200 people ill with at least 89 hospitalized and five dead, according to a recent report. Health officials have tied the E. coli outbreak to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona.
Fresh produce is a common cause of food-borne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of all food-borne illness in 2011 was caused by fresh produce.
Food-borne illness can cause a greater problem for those with certain health conditions.
“It's risky because of the fact that we don't know everyone's health situation, like if they just had surgery or they are of the older population or are young children whose immune systems are just beginning to develop,” says Vickie Hadley, extension educator in health and human services at Purdue University Extension in Allen County.
According to local experts, as long as you are smart about your food and take precautions, it is possible to grow healthy, uncontaminated produce at home – just educate yourself on how to properly grow it.
“Wash your hands and have a food safety plan, which is a way to organize how to process things on your farm or just general guidelines on how you handle your products, whether it be animals or produce, so there isn't contamination of animals and produce and other things like that,” Merritt says.
Make sure that meats are packaged properly and all produce is washed to ensure there are no traces of bacteria from raw meat.
“If we store both raw fruits and vegetables along with meat products, the juices from the meat could get on the raw fruits and vegetables and then we won't cook the raw fruits and vegetables, so they need to be washed,” Hadley said.
“Same in the grocery store, if we don't package the meat well, the same juices could get onto the fruits and vegetables.”
For first-time growers, buying a kit, such as for composting, from a trustworthy source might be an effective way to have a safe garden.
“Use composted fertilizer because once it's composted the heat in the fertilizer chills the bacteria and you are cooking out the bad organisms,” Merritt said. “If you have a good, clean compost you won't ever get anyone sick.
“Either know how to compost correctly or get it from a reputable source.”
If a gardener has pets, hand-washing becomes necessary to prevent cross contamination because pet waste can come into contact with the plants.
“Make sure that family pets don't go into the garden, and obviously birds fly over and put their deposits on the garden, so we just have to be sure that we wash everything thoroughly before eating it,” Hadley says.
Picking the right location is also essential for growing safe produce.
“Be very mindful of where you place your garden and what used to be there, like whether there used to be a field for crops or a landfill or maybe even a factory,” says Hilary Armstrong, manager of Hontz Farm Produce in Cromwell. “There can be environmental factors, as well, like if nearby farms are using chemicals, those can blow into your garden and waste can, as well, depending on the location of your farm.”
The bottom line is to use common sense when growing your produce.
“I work really hard to keep things off my food even to the point of going through my garden and handpicking things off if necessary,” says Armstrong, regarding bugs, dirt and waste.
“I think it's pretty common sense just to keep track of things as they are going,” she says. “When I pick stuff, I look at it and make sure it's clean and not bug eaten and it looks like it's supposed to, then I wash it.
“I try not to use too many things on it because the sun and the rain know what they are doing.”