No one needs reminding of the food safety issue that hit the peanut industry in spring 2009 and led to the largest food safety recall in American history. Because producers are a part of getting peanuts from the farm to the table, they will be counted on to do their part to help reduce the risk of another food safety issue.
The ‘Poster Child’ For Food Safety
Jimmy Dorsett, president and chief executive officer of Golden Peanut Company, speaking at the National Peanut Buying Points Association meeting, said that even before the PCA salmonella incident in January 2009, efforts were underway in Congress to strengthen the food safety standards.
“After the PCA incident, the peanut industry became the ‘poster child’ for food safety,” he said. “Both on the state and national level, we now have legislation that places much more stringent rules and regulations on our industry.”
Furthermore, Dorsett said, there is now a Global Food Safety Initiative that will make food safety issues standardized worldwide.
“There are currently four global standards and individual companies will choose from these four standards in which to be certified. Basically, this GFSI covers everything from the farm to the fork,” he said.
Everyone Must Examine Their Role
Marie Fenn, NPB President and Managing Director Marie Fenn, speaking to producers in South Carolina, said that although the recall issue did not start on the farm, it underscored that every segment of the industry needs to examine their role in food safety.
“You already do a great job of delivering a high quality product,” Fenn said, “But for the next two to three years, every time a food is recalled, even if it is another nut, the footnote is that peanuts had this problem.”
To address the good agricultural practices, the American Peanut Council, J. Leek and Associates and Birdsong Peanuts came together and met with producer groups and established some key areas of focus for the producer to help insure that peanuts arrive to the table as a quality product.
“We need to emphasize that peanuts are a food ingredient from the time you are making planting decisions until the time they reach the consumer’s table,” Fenn said.
Document, Document, Document
The most important area involves record keeping.
“The number one thing is documentation,” Fenn said. “If it’s not documented, it’s not done.”
Don Koehler, Georgia Peanut Commission executive director, says surveying the situation around the fields intended for peanuts will help.
“Look for sources of potential foreign material like glass in old home sites and crop residues that may carry through to the fall harvest is a start,” he says. “Making sure equipment is in good condition is also critical to help in avoiding plow or planter parts from becoming a potential source of foreign material.”
Although the final version of the good agricultural practices is still under discussion, the key areas in which producers should focus on for this coming season are as follows:
Adequate documentation not only benefits the individual grower in their operation, but also provides key elements to the basic food safety system. Growers already maintain documentation for various aspects of the farming operation. Growers should recognize that these records are important to food safety enhancement.
Important documentation records include, but are not limited to: detail of prior farm ownership and cropping history; information regarding variety and plant date; crop management activities during the growing season; pesticide application information; worker training; fertilizer and soil amendment use history; pest reports from scouts or consultants; equipment maintenance and sanitation schedules.
2. Employee Training
Trained, efficient employees are an asset to any operation. Employees that fully understand their roles and responsibilities within the operation are critically important to the production of safe, high quality peanuts. Many local and state agencies offer training programs for pesticide application and worker safety.
Employee training should include: pesticide application and worker safety; proper equipment calibration, maintenance and operation; proper equipment sanitation.
3. Land Selection And Rotation
Site selection and crop rotation serve as the foundation for the peanut production system. Peanuts are typically produced in sandy to sandy loam soils. Crop rotations of three years or longer provide an opportunity to improve peanut yield and quality by reducing diseases, foreign material and chemical residue.
Organic matter content often increases and overall soil quality is improved. Weed control efficiency is enhanced because many hard-to-control weeds in peanuts can be effectively controlled in rotation crops.
4. Fertilizer And Soil Amendments
Peanuts respond better to residual soil fertility than direct fertilizer applications. For this reason, the fertility program for the preceding crop is extremely important. Growers have several options available when deciding what type of fertilizer to apply to the rotation crop or directly to the peanut crop.
With recent higher costs associated with inorganic fertilizers, many growers use organic fertilizers due to their lower costs. The specific type and amount of fertilizer applied to the preceding crop will be dictated by the needs of the crop based on yield goals, the amount of available nutrients in the soil, and applied according to soil test.
Some considerations regarding fertilizer usage include: making sure the material does not contain heavy metal residues; avoiding applications of large quantities of manure to soils with low existing microbial activity; planting where water runoff could carry manure into a peanut field.
5. Irrigation Water Guidelines
To ensure maximum yield potential, many growers provide supplemental irrigation to the peanut crop. The source of this irrigation is typically from underground aquifers, but some growers use surface water. Since the edible portion of the crop is below ground and not directly exposed to overhead irrigation, and the majority of the irrigation water used is from deep underground aquifers, the associated microbial food safety risk should be relatively low. However, to ensure that microbial food safety risk associated with irrigation water remains low, review the location of all sources of irrigation water, both wells and surface.
Protect groundwater from chemical contamination by mixing and loading pesticides away from wells or other water sources.
6. Animal Exclusion And Pest Control
All animals, both wild and domestic, are potential sources of food contamination. Feces are usually considered the primary source of pathogenic organisms from animals, but since animals come in contact with soil, manure and water, they can easily pick up other contaminants from these sources. Therefore, the exclusion of animals from peanut fields is an important component of the growers overall sanitation program.
However, practical consideration should be given that domestic and farm animals will be much easier to control than wild animals.
Also, keep the time from digging to combining as short as possible, and keep areas where harvest equipment is stored mowed and free of trash and other debris and away from old equipment and outbuildings that could provide nesting and harborage for rodents, insects and birds.
7. Pesticide Use
There are many disease, insect and weed pests that can significantly reduce yield and quality of peanuts. Growers often utilize a combination of management practices, also known as integrated pest management, to control these. Integrated pest management (IPM) uses combinations of pesticides, cultural practices, biological control and crop management practices.
The goal of IPM is to use a combination of pest control methods to reduce input costs, unnecessary pesticide use, maintain food safety and help growers profitably attain maximum yields.
Peanut pegs and pods develop underground and are in constant contact with the soil; therefore, it is particularly important to control insects and diseases that can damage pegs and pods. Pod damage can reduce yield and quality and predispose peanuts to invasion by fungi that can result in aflatoxin contamination or possible contamination by other microorganisms that create a food safety risk.
Always apply pesticides only as directed, and only to labeled crops at rates and intervals specifically outlined by the label. Thorough training and documentation of personnel responsible for using and applying pesticides is important.
8. Equipment Maintenance, Sanitation
Harvest operations include digging, combining and curing. The equipment used during harvest is complex and performs many functions during the process, and the complexity of the equipment requires extensive maintenance and sanitation prior to harvest.
Maintenance and sanitation helps the grower ensure that a minimal amount of foreign material and debris enters the shelling plant from the field and microbial contamination is kept to a minimum.
Some guidelines to consider when preparing your equipment for harvest include: carefully inspecting equipment for mechanical problems that could cause metal to end up in the farmer stock peanuts; properly cleaning equipment and trailers to remove old peanut crop debris, rodents, insects and bird nests that may be present and to prevent cross contamination from other crops such as corn or pecans.
If water is used to clean equipment, allow for adequate drying time and remember to document the work done.