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Produce safety: Avoid foodborne illness

Proper produce storage and preparation can help prevent foodborne illness at home.

There's nothing quite like a slice of juicy watermelon or a crisp green salad.

But even healthy foods like these may not be good for you if they harbor harmful bacteria.

Each year millions of people in the U.S. experience fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain caused by foodborne illness, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Meat products are behind many of these illnesses. But every year people get sick from eating contaminated produce.

Whether you're preparing meat or produce, handling food safely can help you avoid illness.

When good produce goes bad

So how does produce become contaminated?

Often, it happens in the very place it's grown. Any type of produce can be contaminated on the farm by way of bacteria in the water or soil, or by improper worker hygiene during harvesting, preparation or storage, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Contamination can also happen in your own kitchen. And while there's not much that can be done about how produce is handled before you buy it, you can take steps to avoid foodborne illness at home.

Avoiding illness

The following safety measures from the FDA, CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics can help you avoid foodborne illness:

Choose carefully. Examine produce carefully before you buy it. Look for freshness. Avoid buying anything that is damaged, bruised or moldy (check the stem area for mold).

If you're purchasing fresh-cut produce (such as half a watermelon or bagged salad) make sure it is either refrigerated or surrounded by ice.

When you check out, make sure produce gets bagged separately from raw meat, poultry and seafood.

Store safely. Proper storage affects both food quality and safety. Put produce that needs to be kept cold (such as strawberries, lettuce, mushrooms and pre-cut or pre-peeled items) in the refrigerator and make sure the temperature is below 40 degrees. Ask your grocer if you're not sure whether an item should be refrigerated.

Also, keep produce and meat products separate in the refrigerator. Put meats in sealed bags so their juices don't drip onto other foods.

And make sure to refrigerate leftover produce within two hours of peeling or cutting.

Practice proper preparation. It's important to wash your hands thoroughly before and after preparing food. Use warm water and soap, and wash for 20 seconds.

It's also essential to wash all produce (both store-bought and homegrown) with cool, running water before you eat, cut, peel or cook the food. It's not necessary to use soap or commercial produce washes.

Pre-washed items, such as bagged salad, are safe to use as is. If you do choose to wash ready-to-eat produce, be sure to avoid cross-contamination by keeping it away from unclean surfaces or utensils. 

Keep in mind that although washing produce can remove dirt or bacteria on the surface, some produce may also be contaminated internally.

Other tips:

  • Scrub melons, cucumbers and other firm produce with a clean produce brush before cutting.
  • Cut away damaged or bruised areas. Small mold spots can be cut off firm fruits and vegetables, such as cabbage, bell peppers or carrots. However, moldy soft produce (such as peaches or tomatoes) should be thrown out because mold can penetrate past the surface.
  • Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel. This can help get rid of any bacteria that remain after washing.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards and utensils to prepare produce and raw meat products. Wash cutting boards and utensils with soap and hot water after each use. For added protection, sanitize with a solution of 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach per gallon of water.

For more information, visit the Food Safety health topic center.

Reviewed 8/17/2022

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