We know that fruits and vegetables are good for us because they provide significant vitamins and minerals to keep our bodies healthy, but they may also carry bacteria or viruses that will make us sick. The scientific community is more aware of risks associated with fresh produce now more than ever. A study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 led by John Painter, Ph.D. found that almost half of reported food borne illnesses were from fresh produce and nuts.
If we think about where and how fresh produce is grown, maybe that is not a surprise. There is a risk for contamination from animals flying over or walking near the garden. Garden produce also grows in warmer climates, in which microorganisms grow well. People are also a common source of contamination when handling produce.
To help reduce your risk of a food borne illness related to fresh produce, look for produce that is free from unusual odors or colors and signs of spoilage such as mold.
Handle produce gently to reduce bruising. Bacteria can thrive in those bruised areas. Different fruits and vegetables also require different temperature and humidity levels for proper storage. Storing fruits and vegetables properly will help them last longer and taste better. When storing any fruits and vegetables, make sure to use the oldest first. Check out a video on how to store fruits and vegetables at spendsmart.extension.iastate.edu/videos.
It is important to clean fresh fruits and vegetables prior to eating to remove bacteria and dirt. Even produce that will be peeled, like a banana, should be washed because the bacteria can be transferred from the peel onto the part that will be eaten. The only vegetables that do no need to be cleaned are those that are labeled ‘pre-washed’ like lettuce or spinach. For resources about storage and cleaning fruits and vegetables, go to spendsmart.extension.iastate.edu.
Whether you grow your own produce or receive it from another source, here are important steps you can take to prevent a food-borne illness:
• Before and after preparing produce, use warm soapy water to wash your hands, counter tops, cutting boards and knives.
• Wash fruits and vegetables under cool, running water.
• After washing pat produce dry with a paper towel.
• After cutting produce, cook or eat it immediately or store it in the refrigerator in clean containers.
If donating to a food pantry, harvest and deliver right before clients arrive to the food pantry — check which days and times are best for delivering. Choose vegetables that most clients will recognize, are simple to prepare, can be used in a variety of ways, and can be stored at least one or two days without refrigeration
If the garden was covered by flood water early in the growing season, most fruits and vegetables should be safe to eat by harvest time. A general rule of thumb regarding safety is to allow at least 120 days between harvesting produce that has been flooded. Washing and cooking produce will help to further reduce levels of bacteria but will not destroy chemical toxins. Do not eat fruits and vegetables that have been in contact with flood water. For more information check out the resources here: extension.iastate.edu/disasterrecovery/flooding
For more information and resources, Iowans can call the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach AnswerLine toll-free, 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.