Take care of fresh produce

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 26, 2002

The lack of rain has hurt many of our gardens and the farmers' markets have not had as much to sell as we all would like. However, most of us will manage to get a good amount of fresh fruits and vegetables this summer. We have always felt pretty safe with fresh produce as far as food borne illness is concerned. But in the last few years we've heard of several cases where fresh produce was the culprit. You can reduce your risk rather easily by using common sense.

Buy produce that is not bruised or otherwise damaged. If you buy fresh cut produce (like a slice of watermelon, say) be sure it's refrigerated or on a bed of ice. Use a cooler with ice or use ice gel packs when transporting or storing perishable food outdoors, including freshly cut fruits and vegetables.

Be sure you refrigerate fresh produce within two hours of peeling or cutting. Any leftover cut produce that has been left out more than two hours should be discarded.

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It's possible for produce to become contaminated in the refrigerator if it isn't stored properly. Remember that produce should never be stored on a shelf below raw meats or poultry, where it could become contaminated by drippings.

It is important to wash all fresh fruits and vegetables with cool tap water immediately before eating. Don't use soap or detergents. Scrub firm produce, like melons, cucumbers and potatoes with a vegetable brush. (The "washes" for fruits and vegetables that are available make no claim about reducing bacteria-they only claim to reduce dirt and other residues.) Cut away any bruised or damaged areas before eating.

Wash individual leaves of lettuce and other greens rather than just rinsing the entire head. Soil and other contaminants are better removed this way.

Good hygiene is a key way to reduce the risk of disease. Hands should be washed with hot soapy water before and after handling fresh produce or raw meat, poultry or seafood. Wash surfaces that come in contact with food often. Cutting boards, dishes, knives and other utensils and counter tops should be washed with hot soapy water and sanitized after coming in contact with raw food of any kind. You can sanitize with a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water. Don't get careless about cross contamination.

Clean your refrigerator often with warm soapy water. Rinse completely with plain water and then sanitize it with a chlorine bleach and water solution. This ensures a clean storage area for your produce and limits the potential for contamination at home.