Researchers from the University of Georgia have issued an anonymous survey to gain a better understanding of current cleaning and sanitation methods used on blueberry harvest containers and machine harvesters.  

With the help of a blueberry industry advisory board, the scientists aim to identify potentially promising cleaning and sanitizing practices to further validate in the field and in a laboratory setting.

Dr. Jinru Chen of the University of Georgia is the principal investigator on the research project, which is funded by the Center for Produce Safety and titled, "Evaluating food safety challenges of blueberry harvesting.” The results are anticipated to have widespread applications.

“Harvest containers and machine harvesters are not only used for harvesting blueberries, but other fresh produce, as well,” Chen said. “What we find in the project can reach broad audiences. The information will help growers and packers improve their cleaning and sanitation practices and produce safe fruits for the fresh market.” 

The in-person and online survey asks growers about their production scales, harvesting methods, and cleaning and sanitation practices for harvest containers and mechanical harvesters. The researchers have reached out to local extension specialists and county agents across the U.S. for responses, and their goal is 100 completed responses for a representative sample size. 

Different methods and frequencies to clean and sanitize harvest containers and machine harvesters are used by berry growers. The advisory board, comprised of select berry growers, packers, extension specialists, and other industry experts, will collaborate with the researchers to identify cleaning and sanitation practices for further evaluation, based on the survey results. 

The researchers plan to conduct a field study where they will swab the surfaces of harvest containers and machine harvesters before and after the equipment is cleaned and/or sanitized. During the study, they will screen for indicator microorganisms in the samples. By doing this, the researchers can validate the efficacy of the selected hygiene practices by comparing the microbial load in the before- and after-sanitation samples. 

The researchers also plan to mimic the key cleaning and sanitation practices in the laboratory by drawing from the survey results and advisory board input. This will help them determine the efficacy of these practices in removing microbial buildup and biofilm on materials used to manufacture harvest containers and mechanical harvesters.