March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Vegetables and fruits are popping up on more plates as the popularity of plant-based eating trends upward. As you enjoy produce (or more produce!), make sure it's safe to eat.
Fresh produce doesn't get a free pass when it comes to foodborne illness. It needs to be handled properly, like any food. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there were approximately 131 produce-related reported outbreaks from 1996 to 2010, which led to 14,350 illnesses, 1,382 hospitalizations and 34 deaths. But foodborne illness associated with produce is mostly preventable.
From farm to fork, food safety contamination due to harmful bacteria can occur along all stages of a fruit's or vegetable's journey, including during growing, harvesting, manufacturing, processing, packing, holding or transporting. After that, you take over most of the food safety responsibilities, beginning at the store. Follow these tips to help ensure your produce is safe to eat.
At the store
- Pick produce that is free of bruises and other damage; select pre-cut fresh produce that's refrigerated or encircled by ice.
- Keep fresh fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat, poultry and seafood products in your shopping basket, at the checkout lane and during bagging.
- At an outdoor market, especially during hot weather, shop early in the day to get a better selection of produce that is fresh and not overhandled.
On the way home
- Go straight home after your supermarket or farmers market trip.
- If unable to go directly home, bring a cooler with ice packs to keep cold food cold.
- On warm-weather days, transport groceries inside an air-conditioned vehicle rather than a hot trunk, when possible.
At your home
- Don't leave fresh-cut, peeled or whole perishable fruits or vegetables, such as strawberries, lettuce, and herbs, in a hot car.
- Immediately store fresh-cut, peeled or whole perishable produce in a clean refrigerator set at 40°F or below.
- If produce was refrigerated at the store, it generally needs to be refrigerated at home.
During food prep
- Wash all fruits and vegetables (even if you plan to peel them) thoroughly under running water before cutting, cooking or eating. Dry with a clean cloth or paper towel.
- If the package indicates the contents are pre-washed and ready-to-eat, you can use the produce without additional washing.
- When produce is to be eaten raw, keep it separate from other foods, especially raw meat, poultry or seafood, by using clean and separate cutting boards, cooking utensils and prep dishes.
- If damaged or bruised areas are found on fresh fruits and vegetables, cut them away before preparing or eating. Throw out anything that seems rotten.