Note to Reporters: The following column is written by Shirley Perryman, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences at Colorado State University.
Among many stories about food safety in the media, I recently read an article in which the person stated he could best protect himself by paying more attention to his food. Good idea! He went on to say he would check out the food to see if it looked or smelled suspicious. Bad idea! Neither the naked eye nor the most sensitive nose can detect potential food toxins.
All food, even fresh fruits and veggies, can potentially be contaminated with harmful organisms that can cause gastrointestinal illness before we eat them. Fruits and vegetables can be contaminated where they are grown and harvested, and all food can be contaminated where it is prepared or stored.
When you think of how produce was grown, harvested and transported, it becomes more evident how possible contamination can occur. On farms the potential sources of fecal contamination may come from animal manure or poor worker sanitation. Processing equipment must have adequate pest and temperature controls. During transporting of produce to grocery stores and restaurants, similar provisions must be made to ensure safe handling. And anytime food is handled by humans, from transportation to preparation, it can be contaminated by fecal matter or other bacteria or organisms because of poor worker sanitation.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends avoiding raw spouts completely – at home or in a restaurant. Those sprouts, such as bean, radish, or alfalfa sprouts, often present a high risk of food borne illness. Seeds and beans need a warm, humid environment to sprout. These are the same conditions that are ideal for the growth of bacteria, including salmonella, listeria and E. coli. It is a myth that raw home-grown sprouts are safe to eat. Only thoroughly cooked sprouts are safe. Rinsing sprouts will not remove harmful bacteria. Err on the side of caution: skip the sprouts.
The FDA has tagged groups of produce as the most likely culprits for bacterial contamination: cantaloupes, leafy greens including lettuce and spinach, green onions, tomatoes and herbs. Here are things you can do to ensure the best possible safety of produce you choose.
• Wash all produce before you eat it or cut it. Melons and cucumbers need to be scrubbed before peeling and cutting. Special produce washes or detergents are not recommended. They have not been shown to remove potentially pathogenic microbes any more effectively than clean water. For more information on washing fresh produce go to http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09380.html.
• Precut, bagged and packaged produce items that are pre-washed and labeled as ready-to-eat may be used without further washing according to the FDA. Should you choose to wash ready-to-eat bagged produce, follow safe-handling practices to avoid cross-contamination.
• To further reduce the risk of contamination dry washed produce with a clean cloth or paper towels.
• Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm soap and water before and after preparing fresh produce.
• Store fresh fruits and veggies away from meat, poultry and fish. In the grocery store be careful to keep fresh-cut meat, poultry and fish away from fresh produce in your cart and during bagging at check out. Continue to keep them separate once you refrigerate your produce at home. Meat, poultry and fish juices can contaminate fresh produce and cause illness.
• Store perishable produce in the refrigerator because warm temperatures foster the growth of bacteria. Be especially vigilant with berries, salad greens, herbs, mushrooms and pre-cut or peeled produce.
• Fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices that have not been pasteurized have the potential to contain harmful bacteria. These should be avoided by those at high risk for food borne illness. Refrigerated, fresh-squeezed juices must carry the following warning label: “This product has not been pasteurized and therefore may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems.”
• Similar cautions should be followed for fresh-squeezed juice sold by the glass where warning labels are not required.