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Food safety begins on the farm, and ends in the kitchen.

When you think about food safety you may think of employee hand washing practices in restaurants or food service. Food recalls may also come to mind as the FDA monitors food safety by overseeing recalls of any products that may be at risk or confirmed for a bacterial issue that could lead to food borne illness. You may be very surprised to learn that farmers are always considering food safety and work hard every day to ensure the safety of their animals and their living environment.

Careful food safety measures are taken during every step of the way — from food delivery and processing, to storage and handling. The food safety measures you practice in your kitchen are similar to safety measures used on the farm, and these practices aren’t willy nilly. Farmers have standards of practice just like any other industry, and these standards are evaluated constantly to ensure the health and safety of their animals and deliver a safe food product.

How Farmers Maintain a Safe and Healthy Environment on the Farm

Livestock farmers are always focused on several key areas to be sure food is safe from farm to plate. Biosecurity is one of them. Biosecurity on the farm refers to management practices that are designed to minimize or prevent infectious bacteria and diseases making their way onto a farm. This includes managing (and sometimes limiting) the number of people and vehicles that are on the farm, cleaning barns and equipment, immunizing animals, and monitoring and maintaining the environment where the animals live.

  • Limiting visitors and traffic (people, feed trucks, deliveries) is one way to reduce potential problems. On many farms, visitors and even regular delivery workers wear disposable boots when entering the barns to reduce bringing any new soil or bacteria into the area.
  • Just as it’s important for you to clean kitchen counters and wash cutting boards, keeping everything disinfected on the farm is paramount. Even trucks are disinfected upon arrival. The trucks are washed down in between deliveries to different farms to avoid transferring any disease or illness from farm to farm. Barns are washed and disinfected after animals move out before the new ones arrive. Like restaurant workers, farmers practice regular hand washing, and wear clean clothes and boots.
  • Vaccinating animals for common problems helps to prevent disease and reduce the need for antibiotics. In some cases, the vaccines are easily delivered through water, which is efficient and much less stressful for the animal.
  • Keeping the animals comfortable reduces stress, which also helps reduce infection and the need for antibiotics. The living environments can also help reduce other problems too. For instance, in pig farming, farmers often house their pigs in a series of barns. As the pigs grow, they move into different areas of the barns, based on their age and weight. This type of housing system allows farmers to provide the pigs with just what they need throughout their life on the farm. This level of care and attention offers the pigs a less stressful living environment, which greatly reduces their incidence for illness and disease.

What About Antibiotic Use?

Antibiotic resistance is a hot topic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), antibiotic resistance is a world-wide issue of concern which encompasses the health care industry, health care workers, individuals, policy makers, and the agricultural sector.

Brad Greenway, a South Dakota pig farmer and member of the National Pork Board’s Antibiotic Task Force, says farmers recognize the need to stay on top of this issue, which is of international concern.  On his farm, Brad highly monitors the use of antibiotics among his pigs, and only uses them when needed.

Farmers also monitor water usage, evaluate the animal’s daily activity and general mood, and are always communicating with their veterinarian.

“If one or a few piglets seem listless or sick, they are treated with the right antibiotic, at the right time, in the right dose,” says Brad. “This is simply the right thing to do.”

Food Safety at the Plate

Just as farmers care about food safety on the farm, you should also do so in your kitchen. Whether you are a weekend grill master, a “heat and eat” cook, or a gourmet chef, it’s important to know the basics of food safety and handling. This includes keeping your kitchen clean, understanding proper cooking temperatures, and practicing safe food handling.

  • Periodically check the temperature of your refrigerator (40 degrees F) and freezer (0 degrees F) to be sure they are cooling properly.
  • Quickly put away perishable food items after returning from the grocery store.
  • Understand the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best by’ dates.
  • Keep at least two cutting boards, using one for meats and the other for vegetables or bread. Wash thoroughly with hot, soapy water after each use. Don’t cross contaminate – never cut another food on a cutting board you just used for raw meat, until you wash it thoroughly. This also goes for knives. Wash the knife or utensil you use on raw meat before using it for anything else.
  • Wipe kitchen counters and surfaces regularly with a kitchen cleaner (or use a bleach solution of one teaspoon chlorine bleach to one-quart water).
  • Wash dish cloths regularly. Use paper towels to clean up counter spills (such as meat juices, or spills. Don’t wash dishes with the same cloth with which you wiped meat juices).
  • Defrost meat, poultry or fish in the refrigerator (not on the counter) to maintain a consistent and safe temperature.
  • Refrigerate cooked food within two hours of serving. Consider this when you are serving a buffet. Keep things on ice or warm in chafing dishes, otherwise refrigerate it and get it back out later if guests are hungry.
  • Cook meat to a safe temperature (use a meat thermometer to measure an internal temperature of 145-160 degrees F.) Once at this temperature, meat will continue cooking while resting.
  • Finally, always wash your hands frequently when cooking.

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Rosanne Rust is a registered dietitian. She is part of U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council. All opinions expressed are the writer’s own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.