New Food and Drug Administration food safety guidelines require specialty growers to review and adapt their food safety practices.

“There has never been a more important time to review food contact surfaces and high-touch surface cleaning, sanitization and disinfection procedures,” said Zach Grant, University of Illinois Extension educator. “Before a sanitizer can be effective on a surface, the area must be cleared of direct and organic debris, which would render the sanitizer less effective.”

The difference between sanitization and disinfection is primarily in the concentration of the anti-microbial applied and when the cleaning occurs, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Cleaning physically removes germs, dirt and other impurities from surfaces, often with water and detergent. In comparison, sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces to levels public health officials determine to be safe.

U of I Extension offers specialty crop COVID-19 disinfecting guidelines

Fresh tomatoes at a past Illinois Products Farmers' Market. (Photo by Antony Boshier)

Disinfecting kills germs by using chemicals on surfaces and objects. However, disinfecting may not clean dirty surfaces, but it lowers the risk of spreading infection by killing surface germs.

Cleaning and sanitizing involves a four-step process: remove obvious debris; clean with detergent; rinse; apply a sanitizer application and air dry. “All farms offering produce should repeat this procedure as a part of their normal operation,” Grant advised.

“The decision to sanitize or disinfect should be based on the probability of the presence of a known hazard,” Grant said. “For instance, during normal washing and packing of produce where typical levels of outside foodborne pathogens are possibly present, then routine cleaning and sanitizing guidelines in your produce safety plan should be followed. However, if you have a known or highly probable hazard present, then cleaning and disinfecting is appropriate.”

Farmers should consider disinfecting frequently used items, such as door handles, equipment, bins, point of sale equipment, chairs, tables and other heavily touched surfaces. Currently, there are no labeled sanitizers or anti-microbial products labeled for SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assembled a list, which highlights disinfectants currently approved for use against SARS-CoV-2.

Only products on “List N” can legally be used against SARS-CoV-2. Some products may be labeled for other coronavirus or similarly hard-to-kill viruses. U of I Extension offers a disinfectant tip sheet.

“The high concentrations of a sanitizer product used for disinfecting are not meant to remain in contact with food contact surfaces,” Grant noted.

“After cleaning the surface, apply the disinfectant,” he advised farmers. “Follow labeled instructions on the amount of time the wet solution should remain on the object. After the indicated contact time, it is recommended that the food contact surface be rinsed with water, then re-applied with a normal sanitizer rate solution and allowed to air dry.”