Clean-up in the produce department, please…
Cantaloup. Bagged salad greens. Mangoes. Bean sprouts. More bagged salad greens. Man oh man, the produce recalls for bacterial contamination have been bad the past several months. While those fresh fruits and veggies may look amazing in their summer glory, let’s be real for a moment: though they may look nothing other than appetizing to the naked eye, they can be covered with…well..all sorts of nastiness. Like salmonella. And E. coli. And listeria. Oh, and don’t forget all the viruses that have been massaged onto those tomatoes and peaches by countless fondling fingers. From field to packing to purchasing, there are any number of ways these disease-fighting foods could be contaminated with dangerous pathogens. So much for ‘triple washed and ready to eat,’ right? These recent recalls have proven that our fresh fruits and veggies should be presumed dirty despite the labeling.
Most of us would think the answer is simple, yes? Just wash your produce before eating it! But does that really work? Does a quick rinse under the tap make a difference?
We’ve all been taught to thoroughly rinse any fresh produce before eating. Though we like to assume this simple practice will wash away any and all bacteria, the fact of the matter is that it does NOT. Once colonized on a fruit or vegetable’s surface, bacteria can be a tough tenant to evict, especially once it has created a cozy encasing of biofilm to keep it snug. In fact, even adding a bit of bleach or vinegar to your washing solution may provide little added benefit. Though some studies show that proper washing can eliminate up to 98% of surface bacteria, that still leaves 2% that could cause food poisoning. In the end, only cooking combined with safe food handling practices can effectively protect you from food borne illness.
So what’s the bottom line? Should you simply give up eating raw fruits and vegetables? Not necessarily and it depends. Fruits and veggies–both raw and cooked–are loaded with health-boosting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Plus, more and more evidence suggests that a plant-based diet is the ticket to a long life. When it comes down to it–for most people–the benefits to be had from a diet loaded with fruits and vegetables outweigh the potential risks for food poisoning. While this summer has indeed been a bit hair raising, statistics show that the chances of contracting a food borne illness from fresh produce are really quite low. Those with weaker or compromised immune systems, such as the elderly, children, and pregnant women as well as anyone with immunosuppression due to illness or medical treatment, should consider reducing their risk to zero by cooking all fruits and veggies, especially when there has been an outbreak of unknown origin. These folks should also avoid any unpasteurized dairy products and any raw or undercooked eggs, meat, poultry, fish or seafood. Deli meats should be heated until piping hot to kill any lurking listeria. If you are unsure whether you would be considered immunocompromised, just give your doctor a quick call.
Food Safety Tips for Fresh Produce
- DO buy produce that is unbruised and undamaged. These areas allow bacteria to spread within the fruit or vegetable more readily.
- DO wash your hands prior to handling food and be sure your sink, work surface, and any knives or kitchen tools you’ll be using are clean.
- DO rinse all fruits and veggies under cold tap water for 30-60 seconds, rubbing gently with your hands or with a soft bristle brush. Though you may not be able to scrub away all the bacteria, just remember that you CAN remove up to 98% of those germs living on the surface as well as any lingering dirt or sand. Plus, studies do show that this sort of rinsing eliminates pesticide residues from your fresh produce.
- Be sure to wash skins, peels, and rinds before cutting into the fruit or vegetable. Bacteria from the outside can be transferred to the edible part within.
- DON’T bother with various washing additives or commercial products. Studies have shown that tap water is just as effective in the home setting.
- DON’T use any dish soaps or detergents on your food. Ingestion of their lingering residues can make you sick.