Ohio State Specialist Eyes Produce Safety from Greenhouse to Table

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Even in the dead of winter, consumers can enjoy fresh tomatoes, peppers and other produce, often thanks to the bounty from greenhouses scattered across the continent.

Sanja Ilic is trying to make sure those vegetables are the safest possible.

Ilic, the state food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension, often works with growers to reduce the risk of foodborne illness associated with fresh produce.

“Sometimes there is a perception that risks are lower in greenhouses since the produce isn’t grown out in an open field,” Ilic said. “But the intensive production conditions in greenhouses — pooling water, high humidity and higher temperatures — are just the conditions that are conducive to the growth of microorganisms. And while contamination in a field would be sporadic, contamination in a greenhouse could become widespread and potentially have a greater impact.”

About half of the fresh tomato sales in the U.S. are from greenhouses, Ilic said, as are about a third of sales of peppers.

Ilic and three colleagues from The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center are currently analyzing findings from five years of research they’ve done on greenhouse vegetable production. OARDC and OSU Extension are the research and outreach arms of the college, respectively. Co-researchers are Sally Miller and Melanie Ivey, plant pathologists, and Jeff LeJeune, microbiologist and head of the college’s Food Animal Health Research Program.

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