Hurricanes, tropical storms and severe rainfall events are commonly seen among states in the Southeast U.S. These natural events most often occur during summer or early fall and may cause severe problems for urban and agricultural areas of Georgia. As of this week, it appears that we have another hurricane poised to strike Georgia. University of Georgia Cooperative Extension wants all of its agents — and the fruit, vegetable and nut growers they serve — to be as prepared as possible for the effects of the storm.
Agricultural areas, particularly where vegetables are grown, are severely impacted by flooding events that result from heavy precipitation. When the edible portion of a crop is contacted by flood waters, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems it “adulterated,” and the crop cannot be used as human or animal food. For this reason, the recommendation is to harvest vegetables and other edible products in advance of the rain, no matter the yield. As long as the total harvest costs are less than the delivered-in value of the produce at the processing plant or the packinghouse, harvesting is still profitable. In sum, harvesting decisions rest on determining an economic threshold for the grower.
Flooding is defined by the FDA as “the flowing or overflowing of a field with water outside a grower’s control.” Since chemical as well as microbial contamination is present in flood waters, there is no way to process fruits and vegetables that are contacted to make them safe again for consumption. If the crop field is flooded, but the water level is not high enough to touch the edible portion, a risk assessment may determine whether the product is likely contaminated or may be harvested. This includes crops that are still standing after the flood (e.g., tomato, bell pepper or eggplant) where the fruit is above the water level and too high for flood water to splash onto the product. Additionally, if the edible portion of the crop has not developed yet, the crop may be safe for future harvest.
UGA Extension specialists prepared a quick guide for Extension agents and growers to properly handle Hurricane Michael as it approaches:
Before an anticipated flood event:
- Take inventory of and secure any chemicals and hazardous chemicals (e.g., herbicides, insecticides and fungicides).
- Move any livestock, equipment or tools to elevated areas, preferably areas with no risk of flooding.
- Use sand bags, berms or ditches and crosscuts to divert water around greenhouses, packinghouses, barns and produce fields.
- Make copies of important documents and ensure that documents are stored in a secure, waterproof location, or take them with you in the event of evacuation.
After a flood event:
- Contact your insurance agency before any clean-up activities, including salvaging crop fields where a portion of the produce was not contacted by flood water.
- Clearly identify the highest point of flood water to make sure that contaminated product is not unintentionally mixed with “clean” product.
- Harvest “clean” produce prior to handling nonharvestable produce to avoid cross-contamination of your produce.
- If well heads were submerged, do not wash any harvested produce to avoid contamination. Test the water before any use.
- Boil all water for personal consumption until test results indicate that no detectable generic Escherichia coli are present.
- Take pictures of all damage immediately in order to send evidence to insurance agencies.
- Allow a 60-day interval between flooding and replanting of previously flooded fields to allow for human pathogens to die off. Chemical hazards may still be present in previously flooded soils, so chemical and microbial soil testing should be considered prior to replanting.
- Contact your UGA Extension agent if you are unsure whether produce can be safely harvested.
Remember, the more severe the rain, the higher the chance of contamination. For more information, see www.fda.gov and https://producesafetyalliance.cornell.edu.