It’s that time of year when more of us are cooking for friends and family, and being careful to prepare our food safely is important. (Okay, it’s important all year ‘round, of course!) Last week the FDA finalized some rules that will go further in making our food safer before it even reaches our kitchens. Foodborne illness outbreaks linked to fresh fruits and vegetables seem increasingly common, but these new requirements for farms and food importers should help curtail this dangerous trend.
What’s the big deal?
If you’ve never had “food poisoning” or suffered from a foodborne illness of any sort, you might not realize two important things: 1) you are extremely lucky because not only does a foodborne illness generally make you feel Terrible (with a capital T), but for many the illness isn’t gone in a day or so and can be more dangerous than you think—especially for those who are young, elderly or immune compromised and 2) foodborne illness is not a small problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, 48 million Americans fall victim to a foodborne illness of some kind (1 in 6 people)—and of those, over 125,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. We are talking about nasty bacteria like Salmonella, Listeria and E.coli, even norovirus (it can be transmitted through food as well as through person-to-person contact). These are all bugs that nobody really wants to tangle with. In the last year, food safety investigators traced outbreaks to everything from cilantro to cucumbers to cantaloupes and more. Now, for the first time, the FDA has been put in charge of not just investigating outbreaks, but actually putting forth enforceable regulations to prevent them.
Rules will help keep fruits and veggies safer for us.
The FDA regulations provide standards for the growing, harvesting, packing and storage of fresh produce for human consumption. Both farmers and food importers will be required to comply with rules for water quality, employee hygiene, the presence of wild and domesticated animals in growing areas, the use of compost and manure and the equipment and tools used on/with the crops. Importers must also ensure that foreign-grown produce and suppliers meet the same safety regulations. What the rules don’t cover: fruits and veggies that are not typically served raw (beans, beets, potatoes, pumpkins, certain nuts, lentils, coffee beans, for example), grains and produce used for personal or on-farm consumption. There are also requirements specific to sprouts, such as alfalfa sprouts, which have been linked to many cases of foodborne illness. Most of the new rules will require farms and importers to be in compliance within the next three years or so, while the regulations pertaining to sprouts must be followed earlier.
What fruits and veggies are most likely to be involved in foodborne illness?
Of course, poultry, beef and fish are frequent carriers of bacteria that can cause illness, but in most cases we eat these foods after cooking them, which kills the bacteria if proper cooking temperatures are achieved. Fruits and vegetables are frequently eaten raw, which means there is an extra risk to consumers. Between 2008 – 2012 the CDC traced the 915 outbreaks and found that fruit, nuts, vine-growing veggies like cucumbers and tomatoes and leafy greens were responsible for the lion’s share of produce outbreaks. Raw sprouts are also a rather frequent source of foodborne illness.
Keep healthy fruits and veggies healthy.
While these new regulations are a great leap forward toward making the food supply safer, there is also much that you can do in your own home to prevent fresh produce from making you sick. The primary way to keep foodborne bugs at bay is to keep everything clean—including yourself.
- Wash your hands before and after preparing any food (seems obvious, but bears repeating)
- Wash your produce if it hasn’t already been pre-washed (check labels of bagged produce to see if it has already been washed; if so, there’s no need to rewash it)
- Keep fresh produce separated from meat, poultry and seafood products—in your grocery cart, the bags and in the refrigerator, too.
- Handle your restaurant leftovers properly. That means getting them into the fridge within 2 hours after eating, and consuming them within 3 or 4 days.