Playing it safe in the vegetable garden

By Andrew Thomson*
Tuesday, 25 September, 2018

Playing it safe in the vegetable garden

Planning a vege patch for your healthcare facility? A few simple steps will ensure food safety.

Food is a hot topic in the aged-care sector, with widespread discussion on food quality, changing menus and offering restaurant-style meals and many other issues in the mix to ensure aged-care clients receive quality and nutritious food and a memorable dining experience.

Some aged-care operations have adopted the paddock to plate approach dining trend through the creation of garden beds for the growing of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs.

Growing fruit and vegetables can be an attractive option because home-grown produce is fresher, tastier and healthier.

Consider food safety in each phase of your vegetable garden

If you are considering going down the path of creating a vegetable garden at your aged-care facility, then there are a few food safety issues you need to be aware of. From the garden to the kitchen there are many chances for bacteria, viruses and parasites to contaminate produce. Water, tools, animals and manure-contaminated soil can spread harmful organisms in the garden.

Fruits and vegetables have been the source of outbreaks of some of the worst foodborne illnesses resulting in severe illness and death from such microbes as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Cryptosporidium and Listeria. All of the food items consumed in each case were seemingly natural and healthy products such as lettuce, spinach, melons, raspberries, strawberries and cabbage.

When growing fresh vegetables and herbs you should not only be concerned with potential foodborne illnesses, but also the agricultural chemicals that are used in the production of these vegetables — insecticides, fungicides, miticides and fertilisers. Heavy metals found in contaminated soil and tainted water are considered chemical hazards.

Reducing the risks

Follow the five simple steps listed here and reduce the risk of someone suffering a foodborne illness after eating produce from your garden.

Step 1: Prepare the garden for planting

When planning a vegetable garden take your time and consider the amount of space available and planting style.

Locate vegetable gardens away from manure piles, waterways, rubbish bins and septic tank systems. This is particularly important for aged-care operations in rural or semirural areas.

When using manure and compost it is best to use aged material to reduce any risk with harmful bacteria. Gardeners need to remember to wash their hands thoroughly after handling.

Step 2: Maintain the garden

Be familiar with the quality and safety of the water source you use. Check with your local water authority on any specific requirements they may have.

Bore water: speak to the Environment Protection Authority in your state or territory regarding usage and any testing required.

Grey water is strictly controlled as it can be affect your health and it’s not permitted on plants that might be eaten raw.

Clean tools after gardening. Wash hands thoroughly.

Step 3: Harvest garden produce

Check the label on any sprays or other products you have used on your vegetables and fruit trees. The Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority sets guidelines for the withholding period before harvesting of any produce. A withholding period is the minimum number of days before the produce should be safely consumed — after it has been sprayed, dusted or used in some way. The guidelines have been developed to promote safe food consumption.

Step 4: Store garden produce

The washing of fruits and vegetables is an important processing step. Washing with sanitising agents is designed to remove dirt, dust and some pesticides, and to detach microbes. It also improves the safety and quality of the product’s shelf life.

Step 5: Preparing and serving produce

Wash and dry hands thoroughly before starting to prepare any food.

Good hygienic and handling practices are required.

Use clean and dry cutting boards and utensils when handling fresh fruit and vegetables.

Keep benches and kitchen equipment clean and dry. Clean after contact with fresh produce.

Inspect all fresh produce prior to use and remove dirt, mould and bruised produce. Wash and sanitise all fruit and vegetables including melons (eg, rockmelons/cantaloupe, honeydew). 

Final word…

Make sure the Food Safety Program has been reviewed to identify the risks present with the handling of fresh produce from your vegetable garden and there are appropriate controls and monitoring measures in place to ensure food safety.

Employees need to:
  • understand the risks associated with the growing and handling of raw produce
  • know how to prevent cross-contamination
  • demonstrate the required competencies to ensure safe food is produced.

By following these simple steps, you will go a long way in keeping your aged-care clients safe and eating fresh and tasty food.

*Andrew Thomson is Director of Think ST Solutions, a training and consultancy business offering practical solutions to the food industry, specialising in aged-care and healthcare facilities. Visit

Image credit: © Velusceac

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