Leslie Beck of the Globe and Mail reports that if you’re like many health-conscious Canadians, chances are you’re trying to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. And for good reason — hundreds of studies have linked a high intake of fruits and vegetables to protection from heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and cancers. But getting your five to 10 servings per day could also be hazardous to your health.
The reason: Fresh fruits and vegetables are being fingered in a growing number of food poisoning outbreaks. Last month, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency advised people in Ontario to avoid eating mung bean sprouts when at least 636 people became ill from eating sprouts contaminated with salmonella. Salmonella food poisoning, or salmonellosis, causes headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. In young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, it can be deadly.
This isn’t the first time fresh fruit and vegetables have made Canadians sick. Over the past decade, contaminated alfalfa sprouts, cantaloupe, lettuce, parsley, strawberries and raspberries have been traced to food poisoning outbreaks.
Fruits and vegetables can become contaminated if they’re handled by people already infected or if they come into contact with animal manure or contaminated irrigation water or soil. Improper food handling can also inadvertently transfer harmful bacteria from one food to another (cross contamination).
Our fast-paced lifestyles have given rise to an increasing variety of ready-to-eat prepackaged produce sold in grocery stores. Prepackaged salads, precut veggies and chopped fresh fruit are subject to more handling and, as a result, come with a greater risk of bacterial contamination. The fact that fresh fruits and vegetables are usually eaten raw makes them potential sources of food poisoning. (Most harmful bacteria are killed by cooking to a high temperature.)
But you don’t need to trade in your greens for French fries. There are plenty of ways to minimize your risk of food poisoning from fresh fruits and vegetables. You can’t see or smell bacteria, so there are no clues to a harmful food. The only way to guard against food-borne illness — from any food — is to handle food safely. That starts with proper hygiene. Always wash your hands (for 20 seconds), utensils and cooking surfaces with soap and hot water before you handle food, repeatedly while preparing food, and again once you’ve finished.
When buying fresh-cut or ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, be sure they’re refrigerated or surrounded by ice. To prevent cross contamination, separate fresh fruits and vegetables from raw foods like meat and poultry in your grocery cart, your shopping bag, and at home in your fridge.
Before eating, preparing or cutting fresh fruits and vegetables, thoroughly wash them under cold running water, including prepackaged ready-to-eat produce. Scrub fruits and vegetables that have firm surfaces (e.g. oranges, potatoes, carrots, melons and squash) even if you don’t intend to eat the skin or rind — improperly washed produce can become contaminated during cutting. Cut away damaged or bruised areas because harmful bacteria can thrive in these places.
When it comes to sprouts — mung bean, alfalfa, broccoli, radish or clover — don’t eat them raw. (Ontarians are still advised to avoid eating bean sprouts, cooked or raw, until the source of the outbreak is identified.) Sprouts are a particularly risky food. Salmonella or E. coli bacteria can lodge into tiny seed cracks and are difficult to eliminate. They then can flourish during warm, humid sprouting conditions. Cook sprouts in stir-fries or soups rather than eating them raw in a sandwich or salad.