Food Safety in the Produce Aisle
To keep yourself and your family safe, what exactly should you look for next time you hit the produce aisle?
In light of the recent Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe, it is more important than ever to choose your fresh fruits and vegetables carefully. Though many factors are out of our control, and contamination can be invisible in most instances, it is important to select produce that has been stored properly and safely from the grocery store or market. To keep yourself and your family safe, what exactly should you look for next time you hit the produce aisle?
FRESHLY CUT AND WHOLE PRODUCE
Many grocery stores offer freshly cut, packaged produce for customers seeking nutritious convenience foods. While it might make dinner prep faster, freshly cut vegetables and fruit are more likely to harbor the bacteria, including those that cause food borne illness.
When produce is cut, it releases moisture from the product which provides an environment that allows bacteria to multiply faster. The cutting process itself can transfer bacteria from the surface of produce to the inner portions, and despite the generally good handling and sanitation processes of the food industry, cross contamination is possible. Of course, whole produce isn’t perfect either. While whole produce is less likely to harbor bacteria, its large surface area is more susceptible to cuts and bruises, which can also damage the integrity of a product.
TEMPERATURE, TEMPERATURE, TEMPERATURE
In real estate, it’s all about “location, location, location.” When it comes to buying produce from your local grocery store, it’s all about temperature. Cold temperatures prevent or slow the growth of most microorganisms and will help your foods last longer. Listeria, the bacteria causing the outbreak associated with cantaloupes, can still grow in the refrigerator. The colder the temperature, the more slowly it will grow.
- Take Control: Certain types of produce, including cut produce and leafy greens, should be refrigerated. The produce shelves at your local grocery store should be chilled to at least 40°F, and customers should look for indicators of good temperature control.
- Case by Case: Each case of fresh fruits and vegetables should have a thermometer that displays a clear reading. In the absence of a thermometer, make sure your produce is cool to the touch or surrounded by a bed of ice.
- Play it Safe: If produce (or any other perishable food) is not kept at a proper temperature, bacteria are more likely to grow and thrive, which can lead to food borne illnesses. If you don’t think the produce case is kept at a safe temperature, it might be best to buy your greens elsewhere.
INSPECTING FOR BRUISES, BUMPS, BLEMISHES & MORE
While some blemishes are normal, avoid purchasing fruit or vegetables that are discolored, bruised or moldy. Not only do these factors indicate that produce is on the verge of spoiling, but bacteria can thrive on bruised or cut areas. When you’re choosing produce at the store, it’s fine to inspect, smell and even touch certain types of produce to ensure high quality.
- LOOK: While some types of produce, like apples, potatoes and peaches vary in color, we all know that iceberg lettuce and broccoli should be bright green, and bananas should be a vibrant yellow. Make sure your produce is free of mold, bruises, or blemishes where bacteria can grow and that the color is appropriate.
- SMELL: Though you might feel a little silly smelling your cantaloupes at the market, produce should have a fresh, earthy scent. If it smells rotten or egg-y, it has either been stored incorrectly or is past its prime.
- FEEL: While some types of fruits and vegetables, like bananas, peaches and avocados are soft at their peak of ripeness, most produce should be firm and crisp when purchased. When buying round fruits, like oranges, cantaloupes and avocados, press the skin gently and if it gives slightly but retains its shape, it is ready for purchase. In general, a fruit or vegetable that feels squishy is on the verge of going bad. Avoid produce that is too hard, or under ripe, especially when purchasing items like peaches and cantaloupe and that soften during storage, but won’t ripen.
Although fruit and vegetables don’t spoil as quickly as meat, poultry and dairy products, they are still susceptible to bacteria that can make you sick. When you buy produce, especially cut produce, bring the food home promptly after purchase and refrigerate it accordingly.
- Keep it Cold: If you aren’t able to refrigerate it in a timely fashion, keep a cooler full of ice in the trunk or backseat of your car for safe transportation. In lieu of a cooler, many stores sell insulated bags to help keep your food from spoiling on the way home. When you do put produce in your refrigerator, make sure that it is set to 40°F.
- Clean that Fridge: When was the last time you cleaned the refrigerator? Unlike most foodborne pathogens, Listeria, the organism associated with the cantaloupe outbreak, likes to grow, even in the refrigerator. It’s important to clean regularly to reduce the likelihood that your refrigerator becomes a breeding ground for bacteria.
- Bag It: Always package individual types of produce in different bags. While it might be eco-friendly to plop your grapes or tomatoes right in the grocery cart without a plastic bag, it leaves your produce wide open to whatever bacteria is in the cart. To save trees and stay healthy, bring clean, reusable bags from home.
Tips on Choosing Produce and Keeping it Fresh . . . and Safe from Plant to Palate
Good Housekeeping: How to Pick the Perfect Produce
Produce Safety Project
FDA: Safe Handling of Raw Produce and Fresh-Squeezed Fruit and Vegetable Juices