You probably remember the headlines. Since the mid 2000s foodborne illnesses – mainly Salmonella – have sickened and killed consumers and led to costly recalls.
In an extensive analysis of the 10-year period between 1998 and 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that leafy vegetables – things like lettuce and spinach -- are mostly to blame. It says more illnesses were attributed to leafy vegetables -- 22% -- than to any other commodity. Illnesses associated with leafy vegetables were the second most frequent cause of hospitalizations and the fifth most frequent cause of death.
Nine million illnesses annually
The CDC study estimates foodborne illnesses cause nine million illnesses in the U.S. each year, many of them from meat and poultry. Consumers can lessen their risks, however, with thorough cooking and proper storage techniques.
It's the things that aren't always cooked – things like fruits, vegetables and nuts – that can cause problems.
“Outbreaks of E. coli O157 infections transmitted by spinach and lettuce and Salmonella infections transmitted by tomatoes, juice, mangoes, sprouts, and peppers underline concerns about contamination of produce consumed raw,” the authors wrote.
Eating any fruit or vegetable without first cleaning it, to remove bacteria, is dangerous, food safety experts warn. But how best to clean them?
The Partnership for Food Safety Education works to help consumers avoid getting sick from the food they eat. It suggests washing your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets.
In addition, wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food. Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
Now, you are ready to begin raw food preparation. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten.
Rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean vegetable brush. Don't fill the sink with water and let the produce sit. That doesn't really remove the dirt.
Also, forget the soap or the commercial “produce cleaners” you see in the grocery aisle. The group says all you need to do is rub your produce under running water, using your hands.
Wash even what you don't eat
Some produce, like a watermelon or cantaloupe, has a skin or rind that isn't eaten. Should that be washed? It should if you want to ensure safety. All visible dirt and debris should be removed, and the produce should be scrubbed to make sure pathogens aren't sticking to the surface.
The CDC study found that most foodborne illnesses are linked to food commodities that constitute a major portion of what U.S. consumers eat.
“When food commodities are consumed frequently, even those with a low risk for pathogen transmission per serving may result in a high number of illnesses,” the authors conclude.
While policymakers in Washington debate food safety initiatives, consumers can help protect themselves and their families by thoroughly cleaning produce before they eat it.