As local grocery stores and farmers’ markets stock up on a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables during the spring and summer months, the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) urges consumers to follow safe handling tips for fresh produce to protect themselves and their families from the risk of food-related illness. It is especially important to remember the role of safe food handling of fruits and vegetables that are eaten raw.
During the growing season, fresh fruits and vegetables may carry harmful bacteria if they come in contact with manure, contaminated soil, water, or animal byproducts. During the harvesting process, produce may be contaminated due to contact with harmful fecal bacteria in storage containers, or on tools used for harvesting. After the produce is harvested there is a possibility for exposure to contaminated items at packing houses, storage, transportation, and contamination at the store. Produce can also come in contact with harmful bacteria at the consumer’s home during food preparation. Ultimately, people become sick when they eat produce contaminated with harmful bacteria. Each year the OSDH investigates foodborne disease outbreaks resulting from contaminated produce grown both in the U.S. and imported from other countries. Serious illnesses and even deaths among Oklahomans have been reported as a result of these outbreaks.
The OSDH encourages consumers to follow recommendations regarding safe food handling and discarding or returning any products that may have been implicated in foodborne disease outbreaks. In particular, consumers should consider the following buying, storage, and preparation tips for safe handling of fresh produce:
Tips for safe handling of fresh fruits and vegetables:
- Purchase produce that is not bruised or damaged.
- When selecting fresh cut produce such as a half watermelon or bagged mixed salad greens, choose only those items that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
- Certain perishable fresh fruits and vegetables (like strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms) can be best maintained by storing in a refrigerator at a temperature of 40 º F or below. If you’re not sure whether an item should be refrigerated to maintain quality, ask your grocer.
- All produce that is purchased pre-cut or peeled should be refrigerated to maintain both quality and safety.
Separation tips to prevent cross-contamination:
- Keep fresh fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat, poultry or seafood when taking them home from the market and when storing in your refrigerator.
- Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with soap and hot water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry, and seafood products and the preparation of fruits and vegetables.
- Place plastic or non-porous cutting boards in the dishwasher after use.
- Always begin with clean hands. Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing fresh produce.
- Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Produce that looks rotten should be discarded.
- Produce should be thoroughly washed before eating, cutting, or cooking. This includes produce grown at home, purchased from a grocery store, or farmer’s market. Even if you plan to peel the produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first.
- It is not necessary to further wash produce packages labeled prewashed or ready-to-eat. If you choose to wash these products, use safe handling practices to avoid cross contamination.
- Scrub firm produce such as melons and cucumbers with a clean produce brush to prevent introducing germs while slicing.
- Dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce the presence of germs.
Fruit and Vegetable Juice Safety:
Most of the juices sold in the grocery stores are pasteurized to kill harmful germs. When fruits and vegetables are fresh-squeezed and left untreated, germs from the inside or the outside of the produce may become a part of the finished juice product. Some health food stores, cider mills, and farmers’ markets sell containers of juice that have not been pasteurized, thus possibly containing germs that could cause illness. To prevent illness, individuals should drink only juices that have been pasteurized or otherwise treated to kill harmful germs. Be aware that warning labels are not required for juice or cider that is fresh-squeezed and is sold by the glass at places like farm markets, roadside stands, or orchards.
For more information about produce safety and prevention of foodborne illnesses, please visit the OSDH website at www.ok.gov/health.