The benefits of eating fresh fruit and vegetables are diminished if they're not cleaned, stored and prepared safely.
Fresh fruits and vegetables from grocery stores, farmers markets, roadside vendors and home gardens are delicious and nutritious.
And as more fresh produce becomes available to consumers, it becomes especially important to handle this produce safely to reduce the risks of food-related illness.
Health department officials say it is especially important to remember to safely handle fruits and vegetables that are to be eaten raw.
Germs that can cause illness may have been in the soil or water where the produce was grown. Fresh produce might also become contaminated after it is harvested, such as during handling or storage.
“One personal tidbit of advice that I learned ... includes removing insects from broccoli heads by immersing in brine (4 teaspoons salt to a gallon of water) for 30 minutes,” Oklahoma State University extension educator Sandy Lackey said.
“Refrigerate fresh broccoli in a plastic bag right after purchase. Use broccoli within three days of purchase, since the vitamin content will decrease the longer it is stored. This is true of any fresh produce, since quality is affected if stored for too long.”
Produce safety begins with making wise buying decisions at the store or market. Public health officials and experts with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggest the following buying tips:
- 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.
- Bag fresh fruits and vegetables separately from meat, poultry and seafood products when packing them to take home from the market.
Proper storage of fresh produce can affect both quality and safety. Experts recommend the following storage tips:
- 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 degrees or below. Use a refrigerator thermometer to check. If you’re not sure whether an item should be refrigerated to maintain quality, ask your grocer.
- Keep fresh fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat, poultry or seafood in your refrigerator.
- All produce that is purchased pre-cut or peeled should be refrigerated to maintain both quality and safety.
Consumers can maintain food safety by practicing the following preparation tips:
- Always begin with clean hands. Wash your hands with warm water and soap 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 under running water before eating, cutting or cooking. This includes produce grown at home, purchased from a grocery store or farmers market. Even if you plan to peel the produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first.
Many precut, bagged items, like lettuce are pre-washed and will state so on the packaging. This produce can be used without further washing. However, precut or pre-washed produce in open bags should also be washed before using.
- Washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent or using commercial produce washes is not recommended.
- Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush to prevent introducing germs while slicing. “Melons can be contaminated by the knife slicing into the meat if the melon rind has not been cleaned,” Lackey said.
- Drying produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel may further reduce the number of harmful bacteria.
Experts also recommend keeping fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw separate from other foods such as raw meat, poultry or seafood.
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