Agriculture & Livestock: Keeping fruits and vegetables safe

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Diane Prather

All it takes is a visit to the grocery store to remind ourselves what a wide variety of fruits and vegetables are available to consumers. Fresh fruits and vegetables are delicious and nutritionally beneficial, but as with any other food products, steps must be taken to ensure product safety and quality.

“Guide to Washing Fresh Produce,” No. 9.380, is one in a series of brochures produced by Colorado State University Extension. It was written by A. Zander, Boulder County Extension Agent and M. Bunning, Extension Food Safety Specialist and Assistant Professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

According to information provided in the brochure, there are seven steps to limiting bacterial contamination and pesticides.

The first step is to start clean. That means making sure your hands are clean, using soap and water. Then, clean the counter tops, cutting utensils, and cutting boards, all with hot and soapy water.

Buying local is another of the steps.

The less transport time and distance can limit the chances of contamination and bacterial growth. Produce that needs to be refrigerated at home should also be kept cool at the market.

Next, the consumer needs to consider how long the fruits and vegetables need to be stored before being used. According to the brochure, most fresh vegetables can be stored for two to five days, but others, such as onions, potatoes, and winter squash, can be stored longer.

So, the consumer needs to limit quantities.

Washing produce before storing may promote bacterial growth and speed up spoilage, so it’s recommended to wait and wash fruits and vegetables before use.

If you do choose to wash before storing, dry thoroughly with clean paper towels before storing.

Also, trim well. That means cutting the tops and outer portions of celery, lettuce, cabbage, and other leafy vegetables because these parts may be bruised and contain more dirt and pesticide residues.

Then, store safely.

Produce that requires refrigeration can be stored in vegetable bins or on shelves above raw meats, poultry, or seafood to prevent cross-contamination. Storing fresh produce in cloth produce bags or perforated plastic bags will allow air to circulate.

Do not keep cut, peeled, or cooked fruits and vegetables at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees) and store in the refrigerator in covered containers.

Lastly, be diverse. If you eat a diversity of fruits and vegetables, it will be not only nutritionally beneficial but may help limit exposure to any one type of pesticide residue.

When washing fresh produce, remember that no washing method completely removes or kills all microbes which may be present on produce, but studies have shown that thoroughly rinsing fresh produce under running water is an effective way to reduce the number of microorganisms.

It also helps remove dirt, garden insects, and residual pesticides.

Rub fruits and vegetables briskly under running water to remove dirt and microorganisms. If you immerse produce in water, use a clean bowl instead of the sink because the drain area may harbor microorganisms. You can scrub produce with a hard rind or firm skin by using a vegetable brush.

Do not wash fruits and vegetables with detergents or bleach solutions as many types of fresh produce are porous and could absorb these chemicals, changing their safety and taste.

You might have seen advertisements for fruit and vegetable washes, chemical rinses and other treatments for washing raw produce. The Food and Drug Administration advises against using commercial produce washes because the safety of their residues has not been evaluated and their effectiveness has not been tested or standardized.

For more information, contact your local Colorado State University Extension Office.

Next Week: More information about safe handling and preparation of fresh fruits and vegetables.

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