In the wake of the recent Escherichia coli (E. coli) outbreak from contaminated spinach, many Americans stopped eating spinach or became more rigorous in washing it. However, there are probably few people who adopted long-term strategies to protect themselves against dangerous contaminants that could be found in any fruits or vegetables.
Why our food is at risk
Concern about safety should not prevent you from eating fruits and vegetables the health benefits of produce far outweigh the risks. Nevertheless, health officials estimate that each year, food borne bacteria, parasites and viruses sicken 76 million Americans, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
Contaminated fresh produce is the number one cause of individual cases of foodborne illnesses, according to the Washington, DC -based consumer-advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In the US, the safety of fruits and vegetables falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, typically less than 2% of imported food products are inspected by the FDA, and domestic produce is rarely inspected at all.
FDA and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for the safe handling of produce known as “Good Agricultural Practices” suggest methods to help prevent contamination with dangerous microorganisms from water, soil, manure or unhygienic food handlers.
However, these guidelines are voluntary fruit and vegetable companies do not have to follow them. What’s more, the reality is that the FDA does not have the financial resources or personnel to effectively monitor industry practices or the safety of the 741 pounds of produce that are consumed, on average, by every person in the US each year.
Fruits and vegetables are grown in what the FDA typically calls “non-sterile environments” that is, they grow in dirt. If they come in contact with feces of grazing cattle, wild animals or birds, farm workers or any other source, they can become contaminated with potentially harmful microorganisms. This is clearly unappetizing, and fecal contamination causes health problems if the microorganisms are dangerous types.
Best self-defense strategies
Most produce is safe to eat, but regardless of where you shop, there’s no way to be 100% certain that the fruits and vegetables you’re buying are free of contamination from dangerous microbes.
To do the best you can to protect yourself and your family from unsafe produce, follow these simple steps…
• Be sure to remove the outer leaves of leafy greens
That’s the area that is most likely to come in contact with manure or other sources of dangerous contamination while leafy vegetables are growing in soil or processed after harvesting.
Caution: The FDA does not require food safety procedures to be followed for most produce, and this includes leafy greens, such as spinach and lettuce, as well as tomatoes and carrots.
Sprouts are an exception. They must be grown under strict safety rules, and problems with them have declined since those precautions went into effect.
• Store produce in the refrigerator, and wash it before eating
Harmful microorganisms can multiply on fresh fruits and vegetables, especially when they are transported great distances, sit in supermarket produce bins for extended periods and are not kept cold enough.
Best way to wash produce: Thoroughly rinse produce under running cool tap water. In addition, carefully scrub firm-skinned fruits and vegetables, such as apples and cucumbers, with a clean vegetable brush. Be sure to clean the vegetable brush, utensils and other kitchen tools in hot water (or the dishwasher) after each use.
Caution: It is a good idea to wash bagged lettuce, spinach and other vegetables even if the bag says the contents have been “triple washed.” If the bags were not kept cold, bacteria could have multiplied inside the package. To be extra safe, rinse off the inedible rinds of fruits, such as cantaloupe and avocados. If microbes are on the rind, the fruit inside can become contaminated when the rind is pierced.
Helpful: Don’t splurge on expensive fruit and vegetable washes sold in the supermarket. There is no evidence that these special washes are more effective than chlorinated tap water.
Important: Although washing helps protect against foodborne illness from produce, the only way to guarantee that fruits and vegetables do not contain harmful microbes is to cook them in boiling water.
• Buy certified organic
Studies show that certified organic produce, which is grown in composted manure instead of chemical fertilizers, is no more likely to be contaminated with microbes than conventionally grown produce. That’s because, to obtain organic certification, farmers must follow strict rules to ensure that harmful microbes in manure are destroyed (typically through a high-heat decontamination process). Growers of conventional produce are not required to follow such rules.
Organic produce is also a good option if you want to avoid synthetic pesticides and other chemicals that are typically used to kill insects in conventionally grown crops. These chemicals do not reduce your risk for contamination with bacteria and other microbes.
In addition, some research shows that organic produce may be superior to conventionally grown produce in its nutritional value.
When buying organic produce, be sure that it is labeled with a “USDA organic” seal. This means that the producers follow organic growing rules established by the USDA Organic Standards Board and have been inspected by agencies licensed by the USDA to make sure the rules are followed.
Because organic produce is usually more expensive than nonorganic varieties, most people don’t buy organic all the time. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, DC-based, nonprofit environmental research organization, recommends buying organic varieties of produce whose nonorganic counterparts are typically highest in pesticides.
These include strawberries, peaches, celery, apples, celery, nectarines, spinach, cherries, lettuce, pears, potatoes, sweet bell peppers, and imported grapes.
• Buy from local farmers
When food is shipped from far away and/or stays in the supermarket for long periods, there is more time for microbes to multiply.