Farmers are the first link in the chain for food quality and safety and the measures they take to safeguard their products make the job easier for other links in the chain to maintain the integrity of the nation's food supply.

A lot's at stake. U.S. consumers enjoy the most abundant and the safest supply of food in the world, experts say, but recent scares with peanut butter and some vegetable products make consumers nervous.

And food borne pathogens account for millions of illnesses every year with several thousand deaths, says Darlene Cowart, president, JLA USA, a technical service company for food manufacturers. Cowart discussed the grower's role in food safety recently at the Southern Peanut Growers Conference in Panama City, Fla.

“Food quality is established at the farm level,” Cowart said. Peanut processing, including roasting, will only kill a certain amount of bacteria. “Critical spikes above that level can result in problems,” she said.

But growers can reduce potential for food borne pathogens.

“Make a risk assessment,” Cowart said. “Consider the practices you would do every day to assure clean peanuts with high quality, high yield and high grades. Focus on peanuts as a food ingredient and follow best management practices in the field,” she said.

Identifying potential hazards is a crucial step. She recommends looking at physical, chemical and microbial elements. Birds flying over a field, for instance, can create potential problems.

She listed agricultural practices for farmers to follow to produce peanuts. These practices have the greatest impact on food quality, she said. They include:

  • Documentation and employee training.
  • Land selection and crop rotation.
  • Soil fertility.
  • Irrigation.
  • Animal exclusion and pest control.
  • Pesticide usage.
  • Equipment maintenance and sanitation.

Documentation of recommended practices is critical, she said. “If it's not documented, it's not done.”

She said prior ownership and history of land use is important. Also, variety selection, planting date, in-season management practices, pesticide selection and application rates and dates, worker training sessions, fertilization practices, reports from scouts and consultants and records of equipment sanitation and maintenance should be documented.

Land selection is an important early consideration. Sandy, well drained soil is best for peanuts and a three-to four-year rotation is recommended. Cowart also recommended staying away from fields with heavy concentration of rocks and other foreign matter, fields prone to flooding, fields subject to runoff from livestock operations, and fields prone to wildlife incursions.

She said knowing the field history is important and that farmers should be cautious about planting peanuts on old garbage dump sites or in fields where livestock recently grazed. “Don't plant peanuts directly behind grazed livestock.”

Cowart said peanuts respond better to fertilizer applied to a previous crop. She also cautioned farmers against using fertilizers with heavy metal residues and at excessive rates. Raw manure also should be avoided, she said. “If raw manure is used it should be applied to the crop preceding peanuts. She also said raw manure piles should not be stored near peanut fields.

“Stacked and aged manure is not the equivalent of composted (manure),” she said.

Irrigation management also improves peanut yield and quality and 40 percent of the U.S. crop is now irrigated. “Supplemental irrigation plays a significant role in reducing mycotoxin contamination in peanuts,” Cowart said.

But irrigation water must be of good quality. “Protect groundwater from chemical contamination by mixing pesticides away from wells and water sources. Follow all guidelines for chemigation. Review locations for irrigation water, surface sources and wells.”

Cowart said reclaimed water is not recommended for irrigating peanuts.

Animal incursions can create significant quality problems for peanuts and other crops. Cowart recommends avoiding fields with potential for animal infestations. In some cases, farmers may need to alter field borders or adjacent fields to discourage animals from entering peanut fields. She suggested removing trees and other habitat that may harbor animals. Chemical or physical repellants, along with traps and barriers may be necessary as well.

“Inspect fields regularly for activity,” she said. “Keep fields clean of trash and old equipment. Use proper pest control around barns and be sure to anchor baits to prevent contamination.” She said keeping birds away from areas where peanuts are stored is critical.

Cowart said an integrated pest management program should be the basis of pest control for peanut farmers. IPM should include regular scouting; crop rotation; use of biological, chemical and cultural pest control options; and applying crop forecasting and disease prediction models.

She also echoed the sentiments of IPM specialists to follow labels, apply according to those labels and store pesticides properly. “And maintain proper documentation,” she said.

Equipment can provide a haven for pathogens, so proper maintenance and sanitation are absolutes for peanut farmers. Cowart recommends:

  • Inspect all equipment for mechanical problems that could result in foreign matter in peanuts.

  • Clean trailers and harvest equipment prior to harvest and remove old peanut crop debris, rodents, insects, bird nests, and dirt.

  • Inspect and clean trailers to prevent cross contamination from other crops.

  • Adjust equipment to minimize loose shell kernels (LSKs) and damaged kernels.

  • If wet washing equipment, allow adequate drying time before use.

  • Prevent peanut wagons from getting wet from precipitation.