Prevent Foodborne Illnesses – How to Handle Fruits and Vegetables Safely

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Foodborne diseases and threats to food safety constitute a growing public health problem. It is important to understand what can cause foodborne illnesses and how to help prevent them.

Fruits and vegetables can get contaminated when they come in contact with harmful bacteria that may be in the soil or water where produce grows. Fresh produce can also become contaminated after it is harvested, such as during food preparation or storage, either commercially or in the home kitchen.

Eating contaminated produce (or fruit and vegetable juices made from contaminated produce) can lead to foodborne illness, which can cause serious – and sometimes fatal -illnesses. Protect yourself and your family from illness by following safe handling tips.

  • Buy produce that is not bruised or damaged. If produce is pre-cut, such as mixed salad greens, choose only those items that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
  • It is best to avoid the free samples of cut produce often set out in store aisles.
  • Refrigerate fresh fruits and vegetables (like strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms) immediately and store perishables at temperatures of 40° F or below.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after handling produce.
  • Use a mixture of 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water to wipe down and sanitize your sink and counter before and after handling produce.
  • Generally, if packages of pre-cut and packaged produces indicate the contents have been pre-washed and ready to eat, you can use the product without further washing. If you do choose to wash a product marked “pre-washed”, and “ready-to-eat,” be sure to use safe handling practices to avoid any cross-contamination.
  • Wash produce just before preparing or eating. This includes produce grown conventionally or organically at home, or produce that is purchased from a grocery store or farmer’s market. It is not necessary to wash  fruits and vegetables with anything other than cold, clean water. You may need to use a small vegetable brush for some vegetables such as cucumbers and potatoes. Even though you will cut or peel melons or other produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first in clean water. Dry with a paper towel or clean towel. This may help to further reduce bacteria that may be present.
  • Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away produce that looks or smells bad.
  • Fruit juices and cider should be purchased pasteurized, a process that kills any bacteria. They will be labeled if they have been thus treated.
  • Sprouts carry a risk of food-borne illness. As seeds and beans need warm, humid conditions to sprout and grow, these are ideal conditions for the growth of bacteria, including Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. Rinsing will not help remove bacteria. There is danger even from home grown sprouts if they are eaten raw or cooked only slightly.

Keeping these food safety tips in mind when buying and preparing produce will help keep you and your family safe from foodborne illnesses possibly associated with any fresh fruits, vegetables, and juices.

Lee Jackson, CFCS
Food writer and author
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How to Help Prevent the Spread of Viruses and Bacteria in your Kitchen

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All too often we allow viruses and bacteria to invade by not washing our hands, undercooking food, leaving food set out too long, and allowing meat juice to drip on counters or cutting boards.

Here are tips for helping prevent the spread of viruses and infections while preparing food for your family.

Wash your hands often. Especially wash with hot soapy water before preparing food, after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and handling pets. Using a simple chemical-free soap will help decrease your likelihood of spreading a virus or infection to your nose, mouth, or to other people. An antibacterial soap is not necessary.

Keep raw meat, poultry, and fish and their juices away from other food. Do not use the same cutting board for meat and then use it for cutting up vegetables before thoroughly scrubbing it. You must wash your hands, cutting board, and knife in hot soapy water before using it to dice salad ingredients. Using a disinfectant on the cutting board such as is described in the last tip in this article is helpful. Washing hands often after handling raw meat is important.

Use a plastic cutting board rather than a wooden board. Bacteria can hide in the grooves of the wood. However, if using a wooden board, wash in hot soapy water and disinfect using the method described below.

If you are marinating meat, place it in the refrigerator and not on the kitchen counter.

Use plastic gloves while preparing food if you have a cut or sore on your hands.

Thaw food in the refrigerator and not on the kitchen counter. Bacteria can grow on the warmer outer layers of the food before the inside thaws.

Kitchen towels, sponges and cloths must be washed often. Sponges can be washed in the dish washer when using the hot cycle. Replace them often.

Keep all counter and food preparation areas clean. Use a reliable disinfectant and wipe dry with a clean towel or paper towel. To prepare your own disinfectant, use 3 percent hydrogen peroxide that is not more than six months old as it will have lost its fizzle then. First spray this on the counter, unless it is a granite or marble counter or other material not recommended for this. Then fill a second 32-ounce bottle with 1/3 cup distilled white vinegar, filling rest of bottle with distilled water. Spray the surface first with hydrogen peroxide and then follow with the vinegar solution. Wipe dry with clean cloth.

Help keep your kitchen clean and safe.

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