Photos by: Jared Guerrero and Dr. William E. Keene
- Strawberries have been associated with foodborne illnesses including E. coli O157:H7, Norovirus, and Hepatitis A highlighting the importance of following recommended food safety practices from the farm to the table.
- The top three strawberry producing states include California, Florida, and Oregon. California produced approximately 2.7 billion pounds of strawberries in 2013, far more than any other state, -and more than 50,000 acres are dedicated to producing strawberries.
- Strawberries are grown in every state in the United States, and almost every country in the world. They are the most widely-grown fruit crop.
- Americans consume about 8 pounds of strawberries every year; approximately 75% of that amount is fresh strawberries and the remainder frozen.
- Strawberries are a great addition to a healthy diet. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and high in flavanoids (bioactive compounds), fiber, potassium, and several antioxidants. One cup of strawberries contains only 55 calories.
The cultivated strawberry belongs to the genus Fragaria in the Rosaceae family, and is a hybrid of two native species, F. chiloensis and F. virginiana. Commercial strawberries are grown in a broad range of climates including temperate, grassland, Mediterranean, taiga, and subtropical. The fruit’s peak season occurs between April and June, in the Northern Hemisphere. Typically, strawberry plants are short day sensitive and fruit in spring. New varieties may be day-neutral and are capable of fruiting under all day lengths, so long as temperatures are cool. This has enabled strawberries to be produced nearly year around in the coastal regions of California, and in summer and fall in colder climates. The cultivated strawberry is an herbaceous perennial plant, as leaves remain alive and green during the winter in mild climates and survive under mulch in more severe climates.
The strawberry plant produces leaves, flowers, and runners off of very short woody stems or crowns. Axillary buds at the base of each crown can stay dormant, differentiate into runners, flowers or leaves depending on the temperature and day length. Leaf development and root growth are strongly regulated by temperature. Leaf development and root growth are strongly regulated by temperature. The edible portion, which is technically not true berry, is a swollen receptacle covered with many seeds. From 1970 to 2013, the production of strawberries increased over 6-fold, from 496 million pounds to nearly 3 billion pounds, which makes the United States the largest producer of strawberries in the world.
Strawberries have been the culprit of foodborne outbreaks of Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Norovirus, and E. coli O157:H7. It is essential that good food safety practices are utilized from the field to the fork. Hepatitis A outbreaks in 1990 and 1997 resulted in a total of 270 illnesses. Hepatitis A outbreaks are normally associated with farm worker health and hygiene. Three Norovirus outbreaks in the U.S., one in 2005 and two in 2007, resulted in total of 67 individuals falling ill, and a large outbreak in Germany during 2012 associated with frozen strawberries affected about 11,000 people., Norovirus outbreaks are typically associated with contamination by food handlers, the detection of different genotypes in the large outbreak in Germany suggested contamination by sewage. An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 2011 resulted in 15 illnesses and two deaths. E. coli O157:H7 foodborne outbreaks are associated with ruminant animals’ feces and/or contaminated water.
In 2011, an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Oregon was the first instance in which strawberries were associated with a shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) outbreak . In this outbreak, individuals consumed a particular brand of locally grown strawberries which were mostly purchased at roadside stands. Deer feces were implicated as the source of the strawberry contamination after investigators discovered how much fecal material was present in the strawberry fields; samples of deer feces with the outbreak strain were recovered from multiple locations during the investigation.
In 2005, the California Strawberry Commission published food safety recommendations specific for strawberry growers based on good agricultural practices (GAPs). This report recommends that producers should avoid field contamination by not picking strawberries in areas with obvious fecal contamination. Salmonella can contaminate fruits and vegetables through contaminated soils, the use of contaminated water in irrigation, or cross contamination from workers or food handlers. Soil and water become contaminated through the feces of various animal species, particularly birds.
Soil & Planting
Strawberry production requires attention to cultural practices such as variety, selection, weed control, frost control, and winter protection. There are two major production systems utilized in the world. These systems are the perennial matted row and annual hill, using raised plastic beds. The matted row system employs runners as the primary yield component where plants are allowed to runner freely into narrow rows. The hill system relies on crowns as the primary yield component. In this system, any runners that form are removed. Perennial masted rows use short day cultivars in climates with short summers and cold winters. The annual hill system is primarily used in areas having mild winters and either hot or moderate summers.
Strawberries have been developed by both private and public breeding programs. Private programs do not release varieties for growers outside of the private group, and they may not be given a name. The popularity of public varieties changes frequently, so one variety may be popular for just a short time before it is replaced by another. Also, varieties tend not to do well across broad geographic areas. Typically, varieties are adapted to the area in which they were developed. Strawberries prefer a slightly acidic pH pH 5.5 to 6.5, but are well adapted to a variety of different soil types, as long as air and water drainage are adequate. Planting strawberries is not advised in soils previously planted with solanaceous crops (tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant). Without proper fumigation or planting of verticillium-resistant varieties, these soils may contain Verticillium wilt, which is a persistent fungal organism. Sites recently planted to sod may contain white grub, which can damage the strawberry roots. Strawberries require nitrogen fertilizer application every year beginning the year of planting. Nitrogen is important for plant growth, runner production, and fruit bud formation. Information on various pests of strawberries can be found in the American Phytopathological Society’s Diseases and Insects of Strawberry book. Information on soil management for strawberries can be found in the Cornell University, Berry Soil and Nutrient Management – A Guide for Educators and Growers handbook.
Strawberry production in Florida utilizes the raised plastic bed method, with about two rows of plants per bed. Many varieties are cultivated in Florida which can change from year to year and include Camarosa, Carmine, Camino Real, Gaviota, Strawberry Festival, Sweet Charlie, Treasure, Ventana, and Winter Dawn. Pests that affect cultivation include the twospotted spider mite, thrips, lepidopterous larvae (fall and southern armyworms), corn earworms, and sap beetles. Occasionally, insects are seen on the fruit, but are managed on an as needed basis and include fruit flies, whiteflies, lygus bugs, saltmarsh caterpillars, aphids, leafrollers, tobacco budworms, mole crickets, and ants.
Good irrigation is an important part in growing and maintaining healthy strawberry plants by allowing for optimal plant growth and crop production., Determining the proper amount of irrigation is necessary because both excessive and minimal watering of plants can cause problems. Excessive irrigation can lead to nutrient deficiencies in the root zone by the leaching of sulfur, boron, and nitrogen. In addition, over-watering can lead to either slower root growth or the rotting of the roots all together. On the other hand, inadequate watering can lead to reduced strawberry size, decreased yield, and diminished fruit quality. There are few recommended ways in which this crop can be irrigated. Ideal methods include overhead irrigation, sprinklers, or drip lines. Overhead or sprinkler irrigation can also serve other purposes including frost protection in areas where frost is an issue or as a way to provide cooling to the crop in hotter weather. As well, irrigation can be used to apply fertilizers and pesticides to the crop. Methods such as flood or furrow irrigation should be avoided.
Harvesting, Packaging, & Storage
Florida produces between 10 and 15% of the total amount of strawberries in the United States, and 100% of domestic strawberries in the winter. During the 2014 crop year, 207 million pounds of strawberries valued at $306.5 million were produced on 10,900 acres. Florida strawberries are harvested by hand every three days during harvest season. Generally, there is one picker per acre during off-peak parts of the production season that lasts about four hours. One and a half pickers per acre are used during peak parts of the harvesting season and pick for eight hours a day. The plastic shipping containers are often filled in the field to reduce the amount of handling.
A high quality strawberry fruit will be uniformly red in color, firm, flavorful, and free of defects and disease. Maturity is based on surface color. Sugar content does not increase after harvest; therefore, strawberries should be harvested fully-ripe for best flavor. The U.S. minimum is ½ or ¾ of berry surface showing red or pink color, depending on grade. U.S. No. 1 grade consists of strawberries with cap attached which are firm, not over-ripe or undeveloped, of uniform size, and free of decay and damage. U.S. No. 2 grade consists of strawberries free from decay or serious damage and with at least ½ of each fruit showing pink or red color. Strawberries are extremely perishable, and it is important to begin cooling within one hour of harvest to avoid loss of quality and reduction in amount of marketable fruit. Temperature management is the single most important factor in minimizing strawberry deterioration and maximizing postharvest life. Forced-air cooling is highly recommended, although room-cooling is used in some cases. Optimum storage conditions include storing at 0 °C (32 °F) with 90 to 95% RH. Strawberries can be stored for up to seven days at 0 °C (32 °F), depending on disease pressure. Strawberries are often packaged by pickers in the field into either 1-dry-pt or 1-dry-qt open mesh baskets, or clear clamshell containers. The mesh baskets or clamshells are held in a corrugated fiberboard tray holding about 4 to 5 kg (9 to 11 lb). Studies show that with increasing numbers of ventilation openings in packaging, the transpiration losses increases and the consistency and color stability of the fruit decreases. The uneven ground surface of packaging materials made of polyethylene terephthalatic and polyactid actually increases the puncture pressure on the strawberry, which leads to pressure marks and injuries of the fruit’s surface. Potential strawberry markets include those available through direct marketing methods such as U-pick or pick-your-own (PYO), roadside stands, and farmers’ markets. Fruit harvested for wholesale market is normally picked firmer and cooled rapidly to reduce perishability during shipping and ensure good shelf life. Strawberry fruit are not sensitive to chilling temperatures and should be stored as cold as possible without freezing.
Animal manure and human fecal matter represent significant sources of contamination that have been documented in strawberry-associated outbreak investigations. Therefore, growers should follow GAPs. This involves using only composted manure, ensuring worker health and hygiene, using safe water sources for irrigation, maintaining the sanitation of the fields, and taking measures to reduce contamination from wildlife or domestic animals. Further information regarding GAPs specifically regarding strawberries can be found on the California Strawberry Commission website. Farming, harvesting and processing practices are the important control points to reduce contamination. Farm workers, who must touch each berry to harvest it, can be a significant source of contamination. The use of sanitizing solutions or vigorous washing is not completely effective at cleansing strawberries, and is unlikely to eliminate bacterial surface contamination. Therefore, do not wash berries before storing them since wet fruit will encourage bacterial surface fungal growth. Store them dry and wash only before using.
Regardless, safe handling of strawberries by consumers should also be recognized and promoted. Strawberries should be inspected for freshness. Strawberries suitable for eating are bright red with a green cap, while soft, moldy, brown-capped, or white or green colored strawberries should be discarded. In addition, strawberries should be stored in the refrigerator (below 40º) and kept dry until ready to prepare. They should then be washed thoroughly with cold water immediately prior to serving and sliced on a sanitized surface with a clean knife. Washing berries removes dirt, insects, and can help reduce microbial contamination.
Americans consume about 8 pounds of strawberries every year; approximately 75% of that amount is fresh strawberries and the remainder frozen. Per the FoodNet 2006-2007 Atlas of Exposures, 45% of American report eating strawberries in the past seven days.
Strawberries have become one the most popular fruits in the US because they are now widely available in fresh form all year long. This may be partially due to the consistent association between the consumption of diets rich in fruits and vegetables, and lowered risk for chronic diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. As the consumption of strawberries has increased, awareness of their health impact due to a rich variety of bioactive compounds has also increased. Strawberries are reported to have potent antioxidant power and benefit the aging brain.
Externally Reviewed by: Marvin Pritts, PhD Affiliation: Cornell University - College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Reviewed on: 21 July 2015
Externally Reviewed by: Hillary Booth Affiliation: Lead Foodborne Research Analyst, Oregon Public Health Division Reviewed on: 19 August 2015