The risks of eating undercooked chicken or burgers and the importance of washing cutting boards and knives that have come into contact with these foods are common knowledge for many parents nowadays. Yet when it comes to fruits and vegetables, food-borne illness doesn’t always spring to mind.
It’s estimated there are a whopping 11 to 13 million cases of food-borne illnesses in Canada each year. But many go undiagnosed because often people chalk it up to the stomach flu. If food poisoning is the cause of their gastrointestinal distress, some people may blame the previous meal but they would be wrong. The misconception is partly due to the fact that most people are unaware of incubation periods – the time between when the food was eaten and the time when symptoms may appear – and that they differ from microbe to microbe. For example, symptoms from salmonella contamination can appear as late as 72 hours after the offending food was consumed while E. coli., a.k.a. hamburger disease, can strike even 10 days later.
For young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems function, the consequences can be much more serious, even deadly. And for pregnant women, the bacteria Listeria can lead to miscarriages.
While these microbes may make you think of chicken and beef, they can also lurk in foods you may not expect. Cantaloupe, sprouts, tomatoes and green onions have all been named as offenders. Adding to the problem, produce is often eaten raw, unlike foods such as poultry and meat where cooking can destroy the microbes.
Here are some smart food handling practices to keep your family safe:
- Wash your hands well using soap and hot water both before and after handling produce. Work up a good lather, as it’s the lather, not the water, that loosens microbes from your hands. Singing a rendition of “Happy Birthday” can ensure that your hand washing is long enough to lift all the microbes off your hands.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating, even those where the rind or peel is discarded. There have been reports of bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli being found on cantaloupe rinds. When the knife cuts through the rind, it can transfer microbes to the fl esh of the fruit. Also consider that fruits and vegetables are frequently handled by several people in the supermarket. We’ve all witnessed the shoppers who choose produce by giving it a squeeze or a sniff.
- Pack potential carriers of bacteria in plastic bags before putting them into your reusable shopping bag. Also wash and disinfect your reusable shopping bags on a regular basis. A recent University of Arizona and Loma Linda University food-safety study found these totes may be breeding dangerous food-borne bacteria such as the potentially-deadly E. coli.
- Pay attention to produce recalls. A good resource is healthandsafetywatch.com.
Produce procedures produce results
The safety procedures surrounding the harvesting and handling of prewashed salad greens, most of which originate in California, have undergone a major overhaul, something I witnessed firsthand on both small and large farms in the Salinas Valley in Central California. It’s all due to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a group assembled after the spinach scare of 2006 when three people died, including a two-year-old boy.
Sales of spinach and other leafy greens plummeted, but what came out of it is a definite win for the consumer. The protocols cover everything from how compost is used, preharvest inspections (bird droppings or animal tracks seen at a pre-harvest inspection result in that area being cordoned off and not harvested) and stricter regulations for farm workers and sanitation. Field workers who spotted a problem and stopped the harvest used to be shunned, but are now considered to be heroes.
Once harvested, under strict temperature control, those labelled as prewashed are triple-washed, then spun dry and packaged. In addition, there is now traceability, both forwards and backwards, meaning that if there is a potential problem, handlers can act quickly to identify where the produce came from and the retail outlets where it is being sold.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Like Rosie at Facebook.com/EnlightenedEater and get her tips on healthy eating.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2012.