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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