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Handle fruits, vegetables safely

July 15, 1997|By Lynn F. Little

Fruits and vegetables should be a mainstay of the American diet. We need to eat more of them for better health. However, there is a growing concern about their microbiological safety due to sporadic outbreaks of infection from the pathogen Cyclospora, connected to contaminated strawberries and raspberries.

Each year people get sick from foods that have not been properly handled, refrigerated or cooked. If food isn't carefully handled, micro-organisms, especially bacteria, can grow to levels that make people sick. Viruses or parasites may not grow in the food, but may be transferred to humans while eating.

The fruit and vegetable industry does wash most produce in the packing house. Trucks used to ship produce are washed and kept at appropriate temperatures. Ideally, produce workers at the store also follow federal and state handling guidelines to keep produce at the right temperature and take old products off the shelf.

Consumers also have precautions to follow. Trust your senses at the store or vegetable stand. Look for fresh-looking fruits and vegetables that are not bruised, shriveled, moldy or slimy. Buy only what you need. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are not "stock-up" items. Some, such as apples, potatoes and most citrus fruit, can be stored at home, but other fruits and vegetables should be bought to be used within a few days.


Handle produce gently. Keep produce on top in your grocery cart and set it down gently on the checkout counter so it doesn't bruise. Some items that seem hardy, such as cauliflower, actually are very delicate and bruise easily.

Put produce away promptly when you arrive home. Keep most of your produce in the crisper. It has a slightly higher humidity than the rest of the refrigerator. This is better for fruits and vegetables. Keep all cut fruits and vegetables covered in the refrigerator.

Once you're ready to eat your fresh fruits and vegetables, handle them properly. Bacteria can adhere to the surface of the produce and can be passed to the flesh when the item is cut or handled. Wash all fruits and vegetables in clear drinking water before eating.

This applies to all fruits and vegetables even if you don't eat the rind or skin (such as melons and oranges). Wash produce just before you use it, not when you put it away. The one exception is leafy greens, such as lettuce, which should be rinsed before refrigerating to maintain crispness.

Do not use detergent when washing fruits and vegetables because you might eat detergent residues left on them. Produce is porous and can absorb the detergent.

In addition to washing, you should peel and discard the outer leaves or rinds. Scrub hearty vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots, if you want to eat the fiber and nutrient-rich skin.

Clean surfaces, utensils and hands after touching raw meat and poultry and before you use them on fresh produce.

Handle fresh produce carefully and safely so your family can enjoy a diet rich in nutritious fruits and vegetables.

Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is an extension educator, family and consumer sciences, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maryland.

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