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Enjoy summer without worries of foodborne illness

August 23, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Fresh fruits and vegetables are important to our health and well-being. As we enjoy many fresh fruits and vegetables during their summer peak of freshness, it is important to remember to handle produce with care.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses are reported each year, with 325,000 involving hospitalization and 5,000 resulting in death. Although not traditionally associated with foodborne illnesses, fresh fruits and vegetables have been linked to several recent outbreaks, including hepatitis A contamination on green onions and salmonella on tomatoes. That's because fresh produce is often eaten raw.

In recent years, the proportion of cases of foodborne illness linked to produce has increased. Six steps suggested by the Partnership for Food Safety Education at the FightBac! Web site ( might help lessen the risk of such illness.

Step 1: Check

Before purchasing, make sure the produce is not bruised, cut or damaged. If purchasing items that are precut, such as melons, or packaged, such as salad makings, buy only the items that have been kept refrigerated. Do not buy fresh, cut items that are not refrigerated


Step 2: Clean

Start by washing hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling fresh produce. Make sure cutting boards, countertops, peelers and knives are clean before using them on the produce. All fresh produce, including the kinds with rinds that will not be eaten, should be rinsed under running tap water. Scrub the outside of melons with a vegetable brush or rub them with your hands under running water. Unless the melon rind has been washed, any bacteria present on the outside of the melon when you slice into it has the potential of bringing that contamination into the fruit. Clean firm-skinned produce with a clean vegetable brush or rub it under running tap water. Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel.

Do not use detergent or bleach to wash fresh produce. These cleaning products are not intended for human consumption.

The safest recommendation is that you wash fruits and vegetables right before they are eaten to help prevent mold growth during storage. If you wash produce ahead of time, make sure to dry it thoroughly before storing in the refrigerator. When it comes to berries - such as strawberries, blackberries and blueberries - washing them too soon can damage their delicate skin and diminish their flavor.

Step 3: Separate

Keep fresh produce away from such items as cleaners and detergents, and raw meats, poultry and fish. This same advice holds true during storage in the refrigerator and during preparation. Do not use the same cutting board for produce and meats unless it is cleaned with hot, soapy water before and after each use in your food preparation.

Step 4: Cook

If fresh produce has been in contact with raw meats, poultry or fish or their juices, throw it away or cook it thoroughly.

Step 5: Chill

To prevent bacterial growth, store all cut, peeled or cooked produce in the refrigerator within two hours.

Step 6: Throw away

Fresh fruits and vegetables that have not been refrigerated within two hours of cutting, peeling or cooking should be thrown away. Also throw away any bruised or damaged portions of fresh produce, or any fruit or vegetable that will not be cooked and that has been contaminated by raw meat, poultry or fish. If in doubt about the safety of a fruit or vegetable, throw it out.

For more food safety information, call the USDA meat and poultry hot line at 1-888-674-6854 or send an e-mail to Go to for safe food handling tips.

Handling fresh fruits and vegetables safely is easy. This safe handling advice is particularly important for children, elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems, all of whom are at risk of developing other serious illnesses related to foodborne illness.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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