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Hand Sanitizer: A New Defender of America’s Food Supply

Dirty hands handling fresh produce

The hands that feed America are the hands that bacteria loves to cling to. And in America’s fruit and vegetable fields, orchards and packing facilities, produce farmers are turning to hand sanitizer to defeat dangerous bacteria.

Already a trusted weapon in America’s schools, healthcare centers, work and social places, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are now working wonders on the country’s farms.

A recent study published in the Journal of Food Protection determined that both soap and alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS) are effective hand hygiene solutions at reducing concentrations of bacteria on farmworkers’ hands. Researchers at The Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon and GOJO Industries found that ABHS eliminated up to 99.5 percent of indicator bacteria on produce handler hands. The study’s most impressive finding on the effectiveness of hand sanitizer in America’s field: ABHS remained just as effective at neutralizing bacteria when  produce handlers’ hands were heavily soiled with dirt and organic load.

“Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are clearly a very useful and important method to prevent most bacterial and viral infections, with rare exceptions,” Aaron E. Glatt, MD, a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, told WebMD.

Now, the vital workers who are the backbone of America’s food supply have a new tool in the fight to protect the purity of the country’s fruits and vegetables.

Strong agricultural hand hygiene is essential to preventing the spread of pathogens on produce farms and reducing the risk of food-borne illness. A number of the world’s recent produce-associated outbreaks are believed to have been caused by infected farmworkers, and possibly, inadequate sanitation and hygiene.

The Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Rule, released in November 2015 by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), laid down “groundbreaking final rules that will help produce farmers and food importers take steps to prevent food safety problems before they occur.” The Rollins-Universidad-Autonoma de Nuevo Leon-GOJO study – which tested 181 tomato farmworkers in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, provides new evidence that alcohol-based hand sanitizers and soap and water are both proven hand hygiene interventions for visibly-soiled hands.

Juan S. Leon, PhD, and associate professor in the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, fronted the study, which divided test subjects into two groups: soap-based and alcohol-based hand hygiene interventions. Hand samples were analyzed for the reduction of bacteria. The objective was to find the most effective way to reduce microbes such as coliforms, E. coli, and Enterococcus, as well as filth.

“Without any intervention, farmworkers’ hands were heavily soiled and contaminated with high concentrations of bacteria after hours of harvesting,” Leon said. “Based on our results, both soap and alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be viewed as good hand hygiene solutions for the fresh produce industry. The performance of hand hygiene interventions can vary and hand hygiene products and recommendations will need to be tailored to meet the unique needs of farms and packing facilities in the U.S. and globally.”

That’s more bad news for bacteria and great news for America’s produce supply.

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