As a nation our consumption of produce, or fruits and vegetables, is increasing. We are encouraged to have 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. We are not meeting this goal but we are moving towards it. As we consume more produce we are at a higher risk of foodborne illness. In fact, 21% of all foodborne disease cases from 2001 to 2010 in the United States were attributed to produce. These outbreaks can occur from various pathogens which cause foodborne illness. We classify them into 3 general categories: bacteria, virus and parasites. Bacteria actually grow in the food and most come from the ground. Viruses do not grow in the food but get into the food, usually through human channels. And, parasites come from contaminated water and other environmental sources.
How do we protect ourselves? There are a few simple ways we can handle produce that will help to reduce our risk.
- Check. Check to be sure the fresh fruits and vegetables you buy are not bruised or damaged. Buy whole foods or make sure that fresh cut items are refrigerated before you buy them at the store or farmers market.
- Clean. Wash hands with warm soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling fresh fruits and vegetables. Make sure your kitchen surfaces and utensils are also clean. If you are sick, refrain from cooking if possible. Viruses spread quickly to food when someone is ill and touches food or food contact surfaces.
- Rinse. Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water. You do not need to wash prewashed packaged foods. This includes those labeled “ready-to-eat”, “washed” or “triple washed”. Do not use detergent, vegetable washes or bleach to wash fresh fruits or vegetables. They are not necessary and can be harmful.
- Separate. When shopping, be sure fresh fruits and vegetables are separated from raw meat, poultry, and seafood in your shopping cart and in bags at checkout. Also keep them separate in the home refrigerator. Store produce above raw meats to avoid cross contamination.
- Cook. Cook, or better yet, throw away fruits or vegetables that have touched raw meat, poultry, seafood or their juices.
- Chill. Refrigerate or consume all cut, peeled or cooked fresh fruits and vegetables within two hours.
- Throw Away. If in doubt, throw it out! If you are unsure about how long cut produce has been stored outside of refrigeration, it is better to throw it away. Also, trim away bruised or damaged portions.
A few simple steps can help protect you and your family from a foodborne illness that comes from mishandled produce.