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Safe handling of fruits and vegetables


E. coli in fresh apple cider
Salmonella in melons
Shigella in tossed salad
The above are descriptions of several causes of food-borne illness reported in recent years. The bacteria Escherichia coli 0157:H7, Salmonella and Shigella in these fruits and vegetables were the culprits. Although not commonly associated with food poisoning, fruits and vegetables can harbor disease-causing bacteria. Their growth environment, such as soil, is a rich source of microbes. Poor agricultural practices - such as irrigation with unsanitary water - also may introduce bacteria. Poor storage and transportation practices can result in contamination, too, as can poor food handling by grocers, restaurants and consumers in the home. FDA regulates certain production practices aimed as reducing bacterial contamination. For example, FDA bars the use of animal fertilizers and allows only potable water for irrigation. These regulations apply to foreign producers that sell fruit and vegetables in this country and to domestic producers that market their products across state lines.
Industry practices, such a rinsing fresh fruits and vegetables with chlorinated water and transporting them in refrigerated cars, help reduce the risk further. Restaurants and grocers also have certain standards to follow, based on their local food safety laws. These laws are often based on FDA's model food code for food establishments.
But, just as with other foods, safe handling of fruits and vegetables doesn't end there. Consumers have a responsibility, too. Below are some pointers to keep in mind when handling fruits and vegetables, and other foods, as well.
TIPS For Safe Handling of Fruits and Vegetables
  • Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, especially fresh whole fruits and vegetables and raw meat, poultry and fish.
  • Rinse raw produce in water. Don't use soap or other detergents. If necessary - and appropriate - use a small scrub brush to remove surface dirt.
  • Use plastic, rather than wooden, cutting boards. Bacteria can hide in the grooves of wooden ones.
  • Wash cutting boards with a solution of 1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) of chlorine bleach in 1 quart (about 1 liter) of hot water. Always wash boards after cutting raw meat, poultry or seafood and before cutting another food to prevent cross contamination.
  • Store cut, peeled and broken-apart fruits and vegetables (such as melon balls) at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) - that is, in the refrigerator.
  • Stick with pasteurized juices and cider. If you do buy unpasteurized cider, boil it for 5 minutes before drinking. This will kill bacteria.
  • When buying from a salad bar, avoid fruits and vegetables that look brownish, slimy or dried out. These are signs that the product has been held at an improper temperature.
Source: FDA Consumer, March 1997