Ames- Iowans should feel free to eat fresh produce and enjoy summer's bounty, but also take care to handle these foods safely, according to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
"Fruits and vegetables are good - good tasting and good for your health," said Catherine Strohbehn, a professor and extension specialist in hotel, restaurant and institution management. Strohbehn's research areas include food safety, local and regional food systems, and retail foodservices.
"Fresh produce is a food that may have the presence of pathogens - it is a raw agricultural product that grows in the soil after all - and it may have been treated with chemicals used to improve production and control for harmful insects. However, there is far greater danger to overall health in not eating fruits and vegetables than in consuming them. Most folks enjoy fresh produce particularly when they grow it themselves or visit with the producer," Strohbehn said.
Whether the produce came from the garden, the farmers' market or the grocery store, consumers should take some precautions, Strohbehn said. "Namely, wash your hands and the product before eating it, even if it has a peel."
Strohbehn suggests washing produce under running water and draining it, rather than washing it in a container of water - give it a shower rather than a bath. This increases the likelihood of washing away potential contaminants. Also, make sure that food contact surfaces, such as cutting boards, colanders or countertops, are clean and sanitary so that contaminants won't be introduced to the produce.
The recent cyclospora outbreak has some people wondering whether prepackaged produce should be washed. In July the Iowa Department of Public Health, in cooperation with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, local public health officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration, determined that a pre-packaged salad mixture was the source of Iowa's cyclospora outbreak. Cyclospora is a parasite that is transferred to food through water, soil or humans who are infected by the parasite.
The bagged lettuce implicated in the recent cyclospora outbreak has worked through the food supply, Strohbehn noted. But with any packaged produce, "first check whether the label says 'ready to eat.' Not all bagged salads are washed sufficiently to earn this label."
It is not recommended that consumers wash ready-to-eat prewashed bagged greens again, Strohbehn said. "Rewashing washed product labeled as ready to eat may pose more risks due to the possibility of recontamination."
Other action steps consumers can take include making good produce selection decisions, Strohbehn said. If buying at a farmers' market or from local sources, ask the growers if they have taken an on-farm food safety workshop; look for a certificate posted at their stand documenting that they have completed this type of training. National certification programs do not guarantee safe produce, but food safety education indicates the person has knowledge on safe food handling. At the grocery store, look for good quality produce - no mold, bruises or shriveling.
Fresh Vegetable Guide, PM 2034, identifies quality factors and handling practices. The publication is available for free download from the Extension Online Store, www.extension.iastate.edu/store.
For more information on food safety, contact an ISU Extension and Outreach nutrition and health specialist: