Q. I'm trying to get my family to eat more fresh produce, but I'm concerned about safety. What can I do to make sure we don't get sick?
A. First, your instincts are right: Eating more fruits and vegetables, not less, is the way to go. Higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is linked with lower rates of heart disease and cancer.
Recommendations range from eating five to nine servings of plant- based foods every day.
However, consumer awareness of risks posed by bacteria and viruses on fresh produce has increased substantially in the last few years. And no wonder: Several outbreaks have brought the issue to the headlines. A recent problem with salmonella on tomatoes from a line of convenience stores has just added to the list, including green onions and hepatitis A in 2003; raw sprouts and salmonella in 1999; lettuce and E. coliO157:H7 in 1999.
In fact, an analysis by the Center for Science in the Public Interest released in April, 2004, reported that produce was responsible for 428 foodborne illness outbreaks and nearly 24,000 illnesses between 199 and 2003.
That's compared with about 12,000 illnesses linked to poultry and not quite 11,000 associated with beef.
Clearly, consumers should do what they can to reduce their risk.
The problem, of course, is that fresh produce is usually eaten raw. Thorough cooking kills bacteria and viruses that cause illness, but no one wants to thoroughly cook the tomatoes for their salad -- or the lettuce or green onions, for that matter.
That's why it's advisable to rinse fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly with plain water before consuming them. That's true even for produce with inedible rinds, like cantaloupe or watermelon. Rinse the rinds before slicing the melons or any contamination on the exterior can be transferred to the melon's interior via the knife blade. The same goes for any fruit, apples to peaches.
In addition, be sure to wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops often. They can become contaminated and spread the problem to anything that comes into contact with them. Use hot, soapy water, then sanitize with a mixture of 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach in a quart of water.
Editor's note: Previous Food and Drug Administration guidelines direct that rinsing fresh fruits and vegetables with water alone is adequate. Do not use hand soaps, diluted bleach or dish liquids on produce. FDA has stated that these contain chemicals not safe for using on food and are not safe for human consumption. Some safe-to- use products for rinsing produce are on the market, but the jury is still out on whether spending money on such products is necessary.
For now, the important point is not to consume fresh fruits and vegetables without rinsing them thoroughly in plain water. That is the minimum safety standard.
Contact Martha Filipic of the Ohio State University Extension Service at Chow Line, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, Ohio 43210-1044, or e-mail her at email@example.com.
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