Food Poisoning Scare: Why Washing Fruits and Vegetables is Critical
Posted by Hal Kleinman on Aug 22, 2012 in Consumer Alerts
None of us would ever eat raw chicken or hamburger. We also know that we should not eat raw eggs or food containing raw eggs, like chocolate chip cookie dough (no matter how good it tastes). And we all know how important it is to eat fruits and vegetables every day, especially raw when they have the most vitamins and minerals.
What you may not know is that the most dangerous food at your next barbecue is not your world famous double chili cheeseburger (that you cooked to 165º), or your Grandmother’s special potato salad (that you properly kept on ice in a cooler until ready to serve), but your tossed salad or fresh fruit salad with melon.
That’s right. Fresh raw fruits and vegetables can be as dangerous as undercooked meat and unrefrigerated dairy products. In recent years, the United States has had several large outbreaks of illness caused by contaminated fruits and vegetables—including spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, apples and melons. Two recent major food-borne illness outbreaks involving cantaloupes infected with Salmonella or Listeria have caused deaths.
How Contamination Occurs
Food-borne illness (also known as “food poisoning”) is caused by bacterial contamination. According to experts with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), fresh produce can become contaminated in many ways. While growing in the field, fruits and vegetables may be contaminated by animal feces, harmful substances in the soil or water, and poor hygiene among workers. After produce is harvested, it passes through many hands, increasing the contamination risk. Contamination can even occur after the produce has been purchased, during food preparation, or through inadequate storage.
Fruits and vegetables do not absorb bacteria either through their skins, rinds or peels. Neither do they absorb bacteria through their roots from contaminated water. The bacteria exist on the outsides of the fruits or vegetables. The flesh is contaminated when you cut or peel the food and expose the flesh to the bacteria that has rubbed off on your hands, knife, peeler or cutting board.
Keeping Yourself Safe
The first rule to avoid eating the bacteria on raw fruits and vegetables: WASH THE OUTSIDE OF THE PRODUCE BEFORE YOU CUT IT.
- Choose produce that isn’t bruised or damaged.
- Make sure that pre-cut items—such as bags of lettuce or watermelon slices—are either refrigerated or on ice both in the store and at home.
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.
- Wash produce BEFORE you peel it, so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.
- Gently rub fragile produce while holding under plain running water. There’s no need to use soap or a special wash.
- Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers.
- Cut away any damaged or bruised areas before preparing or eating.
- Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.
- Throw away the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.
Food-borne illness can be serious. Older persons, infants and people with weakened immune systems are especially at risk for becoming seriously ill. By following these simple precautions, you can help ensure safe eating for you and your family.