The government's recent warning about some packaged fresh spinach has people worried about the safety of their produce, especially greens and lettuces.
After an outbreak of E. coli infections, the Food and Drug Administration recommended that consumers not eat any products containing fresh spinach from Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif., with a date code of Oct. 1, 2006, or earlier.
Apparently, the particular strain of E. coli involved in this outbreak cannot be washed off. But other spinach, greens, and lettuce are considered safe to eat -- as long as they are washed properly.
Fear of contamination should not keep you from enjoying the many nutritional benefits of produce, says David Grotto, RD, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.
"Just make sure you follow safe food-handling procedures in your kitchen, and you can continue to enjoy all the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and disease-protecting health benefits of all produce, including lettuces and greens," Grotto says.
But how do you make sure you're following these safe procedures? WebMD asked the experts for tips about the care and handling of fresh produce.
Tips for Washing Produce
Keep in mind that produce is a raw product, grown in dirt, which is handled by lots of people before it ever gets into your kitchen. Bacteria can be transferred from dirt residue, or from any of the people handling the produce before and after it arrives in the supermarket.
To ensure the safety of your produce, including organic produce, it's important to wash it well, using proper technique, experts say. It's better to be safe and wash all produce -- even bananas and melons with tough skins and rinds -- to remove any dirt, pesticides, or bacteria.
Many people are not accustomed to washing melons, but "salmonella on the rind of a melon can be transferred to the knife and contaminate the flesh of the melon if you don't wash it," says Grotto.
There is one exception to the washing rule: Bagged salad mixes that are pre-washed do not need to be washed again, Feist says. But if the salad package does not indicate that it is washed -- or if you have any doubts -- wash it again.
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.
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.
Those most at risk are "young children, pregnant women, older adults, and anyone with a weakened immune system," such as someone suffering from a chronic illness, says Feist, whose nonprofit group seeks to educate consumers on safe food handling.
While all produce is subject to bacterial contamination, lettuce appears to be especially vulnerable. In response to recurring outbreaks of E. coli linked to lettuce, the FDA earlier this year developed a Lettuce Safety Initiative, which aims to assess industry safety practices and alert consumers quickly in case of a problem. After the recent outbreak, the initiative was expanded to include spinach.