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Can waiting to harvest crops after rainfall improve food safety?

As a farmer, you'll know that food safety is of paramount importance in the industry. Whether you're in beef farming or horticulture, you can never be too vigilant. Not only can the contamination of fresh fruit and vegetables make them unsafe for public consumption, it's highly likely that you will not be able to sell your crop. That's a waste of time, money and resources, so any farmer worth his or her salt will be well-versed in food safety.

Keeping your produce fresh and safe will not only keep the public from harm, but it will also save you from the heavy economic ramifications – especially when it come to the harvest. Now, a new study has found that waiting 24 hours to harvest your crops after rainfall could boost the safety levels of your food, giving you that extra sense of security as you prepare your yield for sale.

Rain, rain, go away…

The research, carried out by Cornell University and published in the academic journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, found that, when it rains, the soil becomes more welcoming to a bacteria known as Listeria monocytogenes. This microbe can cause serious infection if ingested, but, thankfully, it's pretty rare. According to the Ministry for Primary Industries, there are approximately 25 annual cases, and between a 5 and 7 per cent of those cases may succumb to the illness.

Keeping your produce fresh and safe will not only keep the public from harm, but it will also save you from the heavy economic ramifications.

This is a bug that we should take seriously, then, and the academics may well have found a way to cut the risk of Listeria contaminating crops yet further.    

By waiting a full day after rain has fallen, the risk of the pathogen affecting crops, especially spinach and other leafy vegetables, falls dramatically. This is because the drying period gives microbes, such as Listeria monocytogenes, further time to die off, thus rendering them harmless. But how did the academics come to this conclusion?

The team found that, one the rain had stopped, Listeria was a staggering 25 times more likely to be found than had the skies remained clear. However, once the fields had dried following that 24-hour period, levels of Listeria fell hugely, with amounts similar to average.

Beat the bug

"We're looking at the science that helps governmental entities, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and private entities create policies that keep our food supply safe," said Daniel Weller, lead author of the study.

Though the experiment was carried out in the United States, the same results still apply to New Zealand farms. With this in mind, next time that your out on the fields in your horticulture clothing after a rainstorm, remember to give your crops an extra day to dry off – the public and your bank manager will thank you for it.

Leaving your crops to dry for an extra day can cut the risk of harmful microbe contamination.