New Study Highlights Hand Hygiene Practices on the Farm – A Strong First Step in Food Safety

When there is a foodborne illness outbreak the first question that is often asked is, “What was the source of the outbreak?” Maybe it was because of improper food handling or maybe a restaurant worker was ill, or maybe it was from the produce that was used.

Today, we hear more and more about foodborne illness outbreaks that are associated with the produce we eat. In fact, from 1999 to 2008, contaminated produce was responsible for at least 23 percent of all foodborne illnesses reported in the United States.[1] And while the contamination of the produce might occur during different points in the handling process, some of these outbreaks have been thought to be caused by infected farmworkers, and possibly, inadequate hand hygiene.[2]

Effective hand hygiene is essential to prevent the spread of pathogens on produce farms and reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Currently, the United States Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Modernization Act Produce Rule indicates that handwashing with soap and water is the only effective hand hygiene intervention for farmworkers. However, a new study published in The Journal of Food Protection,[3] demonstrates that an alcohol-based hand sanitizer may be a viable option when soap and water is not readily available.

This study led by researchers at The Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and collaborators from the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León and GOJO revealed that both soap and alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS) were efficacious hand hygiene solutions at reducing concentrations of bacteria on farmworkers’ hands. In the case of ABHS, these products reduced up to 99.5 percent of indicator bacteria on produce handler hands, even when hands are heavily soiled with dirt and organic load from crop handling.

According to Juan S. Leon, PhD, associate professor in the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and lead on this study, “Without any intervention, farmworkers’ hands were heavily soiled and contaminated with high concentrations of bacteria after hours of harvesting. Based on our results, both soap and alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be viewed as good hand hygiene solutions for the fresh produce industry.”

This study brings to light how important proper hand hygiene is throughout the entire farm to fork process since hand hygiene is one of the most important measures we can all take to reduce the spread of germs that can cause illness.  

To learn more, you can find the complete study findings in the Nov. 11, 2015, edition of The Journal of Food Protection.

[1] Smith DeWaal, C., C. Roberts, and C. Catella. 2012. Outbreak alert! 1999-2008. Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, DC.
[2] Wheler, C., T. M. Vogt, G. L. Armstrong, G. Vaughan, A. Weltman, O. V. Nainan, V. Dato, G. L. Xia, K. Waller, J. Amon, T. M. Lee, A. Highbaugh-Battle, C. Hembree, S. Evenson, M. A. Ruta, I. T. Williams, A. E. Fiore, and B. P. Bell. 2005. An outbreak of hepatitis A associated with green onions. N. Engl. J. Med. 353:890–897; Falkenhorst, G., L. Krusell, M. Lisby, S. B. Madsen, B. Bottiger, and K. Molbak. 2005. Imported frozen raspberries cause a series of norovirus outbreaks in Denmark, 2005. Euro Surveill. 10:E050922.2.
[3] DeAceituno, A; Bartz, F; Hodge, D.; Shumaker, D.; Grubb, J; Arbogast, J; Davila-Avina, J.; Fabiola, V.; Heredia, N.; Garcia, S.; Leon, J. Ability of Hand Hygiene Interventions Using Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizers and Soap to Reduce Microbial Load on Farmworker Hands Soiled During Harvest. Journal of Food Protection, Vol.78, No. 11, 2015.