I am enjoying all the fresh produce I can get my hands on this summer, but I wonder if I should be doing anything special to make sure it's safe. Are there standard guidelines?
Good thinking. While consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased from about 192 pounds over the course of a year in 1970 to 280 pounds in 2008, the risk of food-borne diseases associated with fresh produce has also increased.
Recently, the Council of Agricultural Science and Technology issued an eight-page commentary on "Food Safety and Fresh Produce: An Update." It's available free on CAST's Web site, http://www.cast-science.org/, and it includes a table outlining steps consumers can take to decrease their risk from any disease-causing microbes on fresh fruits and vegetables. Among the guidelines:
- First, wash your hands before and after handling fresh produce. Wash in warm water with soap for at least 20 seconds. To make sure you wash long enough, time yourself singing a favorite tune ("Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" is about the right length) and sing it to yourself as you wash.
- Clean produce properly. Thin-skinned produce can be rinsed with cool water. Firm-skinned produce can be rubbed with a soft-bristled brush while rinsing. Food safety specialists at Ohio State University recommend washing produce just before consumption. If you clean it beforehand, drying it after washing will decrease the risk of any bacteria left on the produce from multiplying. Also: You don't need special products for cleaning produce. While they may be effective, the evidence is not yet conclusive and so the CAST report authors do not recommend them.
- Be sure to clean and sanitize counters, cutting boards and other surfaces before placing produce on them.
- If the produce is normally cooked, such as potato, cook to an internal temperature of 135 degrees F to be sure to kill bacteria. (You might want to cook produce longer for doneness, but 135 degrees makes the food safe.) When storing produce, be sure containers are clean and dry.
- Refrigerate cut produce properly. After it's cut or peeled, proper refrigeration becomes more critical. In fact, the CAST report says, cut melons and tomatoes are regulated as potentially hazardous foods. Cut, peeled or cooked fresh produce should be refrigerated at 40 degrees or cooler (check your refrigerator temperature with a thermometer). Keep such produce at room temperature for no longer than two hours; if you have it out in 90-degree heat or warmer, refrigerate it after one hour.
Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: September is Food Safety Month. This column was reviewed by Lydia Medeiros, food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension and professor of human nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology.