Keep Healthy Food Healthy

All too often, fruits and vegetables are associated with food-borne illness. Here, the top five culprits – and how to enjoy them safely.

Abundant in vitamins, minerals, fibers and antioxidants, fresh produce is an essential part of a healthy diet.

But fruits and vegetables can be exposed to a wide range of bacteria and viruses in the field and during the handling and transportation process, making them a potential source of food-borne illness. In fact, 11 to 13 million Canadians suffer from food-related illnesses every year, according to Health Canada.

Here, the five fruits and vegetables the agency says are most often associated with food-borne illness in this country — and practical tips on how to enjoy them safely.

Tomatoes. They’re delicious and a great source of vitamins and minerals. But since tomatoes are grown close to the ground, they can become easily contaminated by soil, tainted water, wild and domestic animals or improperly composted manure. Bacteria may also be transferred during and after harvest from handling, storing and transporting. Like other types of fresh produce, tomatoes can also become contaminated with disease-causing bacteria when they come into contact with raw foods such as meat, poultry, seafood and their juices.

At the store: When buying a tomato, look for any signs of bruising or cuts on the skin. Select tomatoes that are firm but not hard.

At home: Store whole tomatoes unwashed and uncovered at room temperature, making sure to avoid direct sunlight. When the tomatoes are ripe, move them to the fridge and use within a few days. Cut tomatoes should always be refrigerated at 4ºC (40ºF) or less and can be kept for up to three days. (If the cut or peeled tomatoes have been left out at room temperature for more than two hours, you should throw them away.) Also, as is the case with other fresh produce, be sure to keep them separate from raw food items.

Tips for cleaning and preparation:

– Always wash your hands before handling any fresh produce. Rinse your tomatoes gently under fresh, running water. (Studies have shown that there’s more E. coli in a kitchen sink than in a toilet after you flush it! If you plan to soak veggies in the sink, be sure to disinfect it first.)

– Throw out any tomatoes that are bruised or spoiled.

– After washing, cut out the scar where the stem was, and discard.

Salmonella is the bacteria most commonly linked to tomato food-borne outbreaks. For more information, click here.

Mushrooms. Nutrient-rich mushrooms can be contaminated by unsterile conditions in the field or from handling, storing and transporting. And because fresh mushrooms are often stored unrefrigerated in airtight packaging, botulism is a particular concern. Without oxygen, the bacteria that cause botulism have a chance to grow and produce toxins before you can see any signs of spoilage on the mushrooms.

At the store: Select fresh mushrooms with no signs of spoilage and bruising. When buying fresh, loose mushrooms, choose the ones that are firm and the same color. Prepackaged, fresh mushrooms should be in plastic wrapping or film that has holes in it to allow for airflow and to prevent the growth of botulism.

At home: Mushrooms should be eaten as soon as possible after you buy them. To store, keep loose mushrooms in a paper bag in the refrigerator. (Packaged mushrooms should also be stored in the fridge in their original packaging.) They can be kept in the refrigerator at 4ºC (40ºF) or less for up to five days. Before freezing mushrooms, be sure to steam or sauté them first. Cooked mushrooms can be kept in the freezer for eight to twelve months.

Tips for cleaning and preparation:

— Clean mushrooms gently with a damp cloth or a soft bristle brush. You can also rinse them under fresh, running water and pat dry with paper towel.

–When cleaning, pay special attention to the underside of the mushroom, because the flesh under the mushroom cap can easily store bacteria and viruses.

— To keep them fresher, do not wash mushrooms until you are ready to use them.

Botulism is a particular concern for packaged, unrefrigerated mushrooms that are labeled “Keep Refrigerated.” For more information, click here.

Leafy greens. Lettuce, arugula, bok choy, spinach and other leafy greens are all part of a nutritious diet – but they are also at risk for contamination by disease-causing bacteria in the field or after harvest.

At the store: When purchasing leafy greens, look for leaves that are crisp and not wilted or brown.

At home: Store leafy greens in the refrigerator at 4ºC (40ºF) or less. Typically, they can be kept for 5 to 7 days. Throw them away if their leaves become wilted or brown. Bagged, ready-to- eat, pre-washed leafy greens should also be refrigerated and used before the expiry date.

Tips for cleaning and preparation:

–Wash greens under fresh, cool running water. Remove outer leaves to make sure all the dirt is removed.

— Ready-to-eat, bagged, pre-washed leafy greens do not need to be washed again. But pre-cut or pre-washed greens sold in open bags or containers should be washed before eating.

Some bacteria that are most commonly found in leafy greens are E. coli and Salmonella. For more information consult Health Canada’s Product Safety page.

Fresh herbs. Herbs add a dash of flavour and healthy benefits to your food. (See Spices of life.) But like other fresh produce, herbs can become contaminated by dangerous bacteria on the ground.

In the store: When buying fresh herbs from the grocery store (or picking them from your garden), make sure the herbs have bright leaves and a fresh smell. The stalks should be crisp and the leaves should not be dried out. (If the leaves are beginning to yellow or brown or have black spots, it could mean that the herbs are no longer fresh.)

At home: Fresh herbs can be stored up to five days in the refrigerator at 4ºC (40ºF) or less. Trim the ends of the stalks and place the unwashed fresh herbs into a resealable plastic bag. Fresh herbs can also be kept frozen in a freezer bag after being washed and pat dried with paper towels. Note: Unlike other fresh herbs, basil should be stored unrefrigerated and uncovered. The cold will cause the basil leaves to turn black.

Tips for cleaning and preparation:

— Wash fresh herbs under fresh, cool, running water to clean off any dirt. Make sure you throw out any leaves that are yellowing or have spots.

Microorganisms that are most commonly found in fresh herbs are Cyclospora and E. coli. For more information consult Health Canada’s Product Safety page.

Melons. Honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon all belong to the gourd family and grow close to the ground. Because of this, their outer skin or rind can become contaminated by soil, tainted water, animals or improperly composted manure. They can also become contaminated by exposure to raw food items.

In particular, cantaloupe is at risk of contamination because of its unique netted rind. The spaces between the netting can trap bacteria and make them harder to remove.

In the store: When choosing melons, make sure to choose ones that are firm, not bruised or damaged. Melon can become contaminated through the bruises and damage to the hard outer rind or skin. (Some melons may have blemishes on one side, usually where the melon was resting on the ground. This particular blemish does not make the melon unsafe to eat.) When purchasing pre-cut melons, make sure they are properly refrigerated or chilled.

At home: While melons are best eaten fresh, whole or uncut melons can be stored in the refrigerator for 5-15 days, depending on the ripeness, variety and growing conditions. All cut melons should be refrigerated immediately, and can be stored in the fridge for up to 4 days at 4ºC (40ºF) or less. Do not leave cut melons at room temperature for longer than two hours.

Tips for cleaning and preparation:

–Throw away a melon that is bruised or rotten.

— Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before and after handling melons.

— Before cutting thoroughly wash and scrub the whole melon with warm water using a clean produce brush. Otherwise, bacteria from the outer rind can transfer to the inner flesh of the melon when cut.

–Thoroughly wash all food equipment and utensils that come into contact with the melon, with warm water and soap.

Melons can pose a risk for Salmonella poisoning. To read more click here.

Note: There is no need to use anything other than water when washing fresh fruits and vegetables. According to Health Canada, produce washes may not completely remove or kill bacteria, viruses and parasites, and using fresh, running water is at least as effective as using cleansers.