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Tips for Washing Produce continued...

Here are five tips for proper cleaning and handling of fresh produce:

  • The produce is not the only thing you need to wash. Wash your hands thoroughly, using warm water and soap, for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food. "Dirty hands are a very common source of bacterial contamination," says Feist. "Hand washing is one of the most important things you can do to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness."
  • Wash the produce under a stream of cool water or using the spray nozzle of your faucet.
  • Rub the produce with your hands, or scrub with a vegetable brush, to remove potential bacteria in all the grooves and crevices.
  • No soap or special solutions are necessary; plain, cool water is the best agent. "Solutions designed to wash produce have not shown any advantage of reducing pathogens on produce over using cool running water," Feist says.
  • One potential source of contamination is your own kitchen. Knives, cutting boards, counters, plates, and sponges should be cleaned with soap and water to prevent contamination. "Sponges stay moist and are often breeding grounds for bacterial contamination, so we recommend using clean cloth towels instead of sponges, and washing them often," says Feist. If you prefer sponges, wash them often, in either the dishwasher or washing machine.
  • Store perishable fruits and vegetables (such as strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms) in a clean refrigerator kept at 40 degrees or below, the FDA recommends. And always refrigerate produce that was purchased pre-cut or peeled, to maintain quality and safety.

Food-Borne Illness

Despite the recent spinach scare, food-borne illnesses are actually on the decline overall, according to Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education in Washington.

"We initiated the 'Fight Bac' campaign 10 years ago to inform consumers how to practice home food safety, and ever since, we have seen a declining incidence of food-borne illness," she says.

That's not to say that food-borne illness is not still a serious problem. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and as many as 5,000 die from food-borne illness each year.

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