Ann Draughon, co-director of the University of Tennessee Food Safety Center of Excellence, warns consumers that we should be as careful when preparing fresh fruits and vegetables.
"Most people associate food-borne illness with improperly cooked foods of animal origin, but the fact is, the number of people getting sick from eating fruits and vegetables contaminated with pathogens has doubled since 1990," says Draughon.
According to the congressional General Accounting Office, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of annual food illness cases are caused by vegetables and fruits. Meat, poultry, pork and eggs still cause about 40 to 45 percent of illnesses. Seafood and cheeses also account for a large percentage of food-borne illnesses.
Pathogens are varied, and those found in fruits and vegetables have included Escherichia coli 0157:H7 in apple juice, salmonella on vegetables, and cyclospora and hepatitis A virus on produce.
She suggests the following food safety practices to reducing your risk of food-borne illness:
- Wash fruits and vegetables carefully under cool, running water using a brush to remove surface soil. Do not use detergents because they may leave harmful residues.
- Remove and discard the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage. Wash each lettuce leaf under running water. Scrub melons thoroughly. Do not clean by submerging the entire head of lettuce, melon or other fruits and vegetables in water. You may just be rinsing in contaminated water.
- Sprays and washes that claim to clean fruits and vegetables may remove pesticide residues, but do not remove all microorganisms.
- Beware of contaminating foods while slicing them on the cutting board. Bacteria can grow well on the cut surface of many fruits and vegetables. Be especially careful with melons.
- Avoid leaving cut produce at room temperature for several hours. Keep them refrigerated.
- Use a separate cutting board for produce and raw meat products. Boards must be sanitized by soaking in a bleach solution or using heat in the dishwasher.
- Don’t be a source of pathogens yourself. Wash you hands thoroughly with soap and water before preparing food and between handling raw and ready-to-eat foods.
- Avoid preparing food if you have a diarrheal illness. Changing a baby’s diaper during food preparation is a bad idea and can easily spread illness if hands are not washed thoroughly after the change.