wash bagged produceWhile packaged spinach has been removed from store shelves nationwide following an E. coli outbreak that has been linked to at least one death and a number of illnesses, how safe is that prepackaged salad mix or fresh produce, such as lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, etc., you just purchased?

According to a Kansas State University food microbiologist, you may be getting more than you bargained for. Daniel Y.C. Fung, a K-State professor of animal sciences and industry and of food science, said although the recent spinach incident is an isolated case and should not be an indication of the safety of all fresh produce in the United States, consumers should take precautions before eating any produce — prepackaged or not.

"Once consumers buy these packages, often they just open them up and eat them," Fung said. "With hamburger, we can tell people to cook to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and it will be sure to kill salmonella or E. Coli, but with salads, we have no idea. You go to supermarket, buy the bagged produce, dump out and eat. You don’t know if it has E. coli."

Fung said consumers can protect themselves by washing produce in running water for five minutes or more and by not letting the produce come in contact with any thing contaminated by other raw foods such as raw meat, fish, etc., before eating.

Fung, who has devoted his career to developing faster processes for detecting spoilage and harmful and beneficial microorganisms in food and the environment, also has studied how spices can deter foodborne pathogens. His research has discovered that use of common spices like clove and garlic can kill up to 99 percent of the E. coli bacteria in ground beef.

To reduce microbes in fresh produces, Fung recommends "generous use of vinegar and spices" in salad dressings. "This may reduce 90 percent to 99 percent of the microbes in the produce," he said. "Leftover fresh produce also should be refrigerated after use as soon as possible."

Fung initiated an international workshop on rapid methods and automation in microbiology in 1981. The workshop has attracted more than 3,500 scientists from 60 countries. He also is a consultant to the food industry and microbiological diagnostic companies.