With the recent Listeria bacteria scare that’s still ongoing, many of my patients have asked me how they can really protect themselves against a foodborne illness. It’s true; people bought and ate infected cantaloupes that, by all intents and purposes, didn’t look to be tainted.
How can you be sure that any raw fruit and vegetables you eat are really safe to eat even if they look perfectly fine? The answer is you can’t. Let me share with you, however, the things you can do to lower your risk of getting sick from fruits and vegetables.
Stay Healthy, Use Safe Practices With Produce
Dangerous, health-threatening bacteria can get into fruits and vegetables both from the soil they’re grown in, or contaminated water near where they are growing, to the way in which they are handled during their harvesting and shipping to grocers around the country. In addition, once we get produce in our homes, we can unwittingly infect them with bacteria just by preparing them incorrectly.
Though we cannot know who, or how they, handled our produce before it got to our grocery store, there are some things we can look for that might give us a clue that the produce may be bad and we shouldn’t buy it:
- Look for cuts or bruises in the rinds or skins of fruits and vegetables. These are an open pathway for bacteria to get in and fester. Similarly, a lot of soft spots on the skin can mean the produce is going bad on the inside. Also look for signs of damage from insects, such as tiny pinprick type holes that may indicate insects have tried to feed on them.
- If you buy fruit that has been cut, like watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple halves, etc, be sure that they are wrapped tightly in plastic and stored on ice or in a refrigerated section.
- Always check the user dates on these refrigerated produce pieces.
- In the grocery store, make sure you or the bagger doesn’t put your meats or seafood in with your produce.
When you get produce home, there are several things the US Department of Agriculture recommends you to do:
- Produce that can be stored at room temperature such as potatoes, squash, etc, be sure to wash before eating with warm water and a good vegetable brush. There are produce washes available in the produce section of your grocers but these can sometimes leave a soapy tasting residue. Washing not only removes bacteria and mold but pesticide residue if you do not buy organic. Strawberries especially can harbor more of these substances in its tiny seed pits. Flush them carefully with water and remove the hulls before eating.
- Store room temperature produce in produce bins or bowls or pans in a cool, dark storage place, not directly on the floor as mice, ants, other insects can get into them, especially in the warmer months.
- Refrigerate perishable produce like mushrooms, berries, lettuce, etc in a 40 degree, or below, refrigerator. Don’t wash them, however, until you are ready to eat them. Check your refrigerator’s thermometer to be sure it’s the right temperature. This includes any produce that has been cut and wrapped in plastic, or in a plastic container.
- Before you cut any produce, be sure to wash your own hands with an antibacterial soap and/or wear plastic produce handling gloves.
- Allow produce to air dry where nothing will contact it. Or, dry with paper towels.
- Pull off the outer leaves of certain produce and discard, such as lettuce or cabbage.
- Use separate cutting boards for raw vegetables and meats or seafood to prevent cross contamination from meat blood or seafood fluids.
- Wash all utensils, cutting boards, countertops the same as you would if any bacteria had entered your home. Periodically use a bleach wash to clean these items, and/or put through the dishwasher on hot water.
Produce with Special Concerns
Though all produce can have a problem with bacteria, certain types of produce may be more prone to problems such as:
- Sprouts. These are at higher risk for Salmonella, Listeria, and E.coli bacteria as its seeds have to sprout in warm/wet conditions. Cleaning them will not get rid of the bacteria/mold, however, cooking the sprouts in boiling water will. Elderly people and very young children, or those with decreased immune systems, should not eat sprouts.
- Organic produce. Organic produce is not grown with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sludge, or ionizing radiation. Much organic produce is harvested in an unripened state and then exposed to ethylene gas, a natural substance that fruits make, to ripen them. Be careful that the produce you buy is not over ripened and molding.
- Fresh squeezed juices. Many health food stores, cider mills, and roadside markets, sell fresh squeezed juices that are not pasteurized. If they are left to sit they can grow bacteria and make you ill. Drink fresh squeezed juices quickly and/or refrigerate them.
- Wax coatings. Some fruits and vegetables are lightly coated with a food grade beeswax or carnauba wax that is plant in origin and keeps produce from molding. These are safe to eat, however, scrub them good with a produce brush.
Raw fruits and vegetables are full of healthy vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants and I always advise my patients to eat more of them whenever possible. Steaming is a good alternative to water boiling that can kill bacteria without destroying valuable nutrients. Just be sure to buy, handle and store your produce carefully.