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Safer eats: How to avoid foodborne illness 7/12
(This article is adapted from the July 2012 ShopSmart magazine.)

Do you rinse raw poultry but never wash a watermelon? Food safety experts advise just the opposite! Do you wash sprouts? Rinsing helps but won’t eliminate bacteria.

To fully protect yourself you’ll need to cook sprouts, which have caused some of the most widespread food-illness outbreaks.

The truth is, nothing we eat is 100 percent safe. But there’s an easy way to cut your odds of getting sick.

All it takes is some food-cleaning know-how. Here’s advice from food safety experts at Consumer Reports.

Should you buy a produce wash?

No. In most cases these products haven’t been found to be more effective than rinsing, rubbing, and scrubbing produce with your hands or with a vegetable brush. The friction and running water help remove surface bacteria and soil.

Drying food with a paper towel might help remove even more surface bacteria. A corer makes cleaning some produce at the stem and blossom end easier, and can also be used for pears, pineapples and other types of firm fruit.

Should you wash "pre-washed" greens?

Yes. In Consumer Reports tests of bagged "pre-washed" greens, testers found a range of bacteria that indicates filth. You may not be able to clean off all the yucky stuff, but you can wash off some soil, insects, surface bacteria, and slime, which can grow over time.

Using a BPA-free plastic salad spinner may make it less likely that you’ll re-use a potentially contaminated cloth towel; using separate cutting boards for produce, raw meat, poultry, and seafood is a good idea.

Foods you should never wash

Rinsing certain foods can spread bacteria to other foods, utensils, and surfaces. High on the "don’t wash" list are poultry, meat, and eggs. Don’t wash nuts in their shells either. Moisture encourages bacteria or mold growth. It’s best to wash hands after shelling and before eating nuts.

You also might not want to wash mushrooms. Trim them and wipe them down with a damp paper towel. Washing can make them mushy.

The main culprits

Leafy greens, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries are some of the top culprits behind produce-caused outbreaks of foodborne illness. Cantaloupe has also triggered its share of scares.

But all fruits and veggies still need proper washing to get dirt and pesticide residues off.

If you buy USDA certified organic produce or items that you know are locally grown, you can avoid pesticide residues, but you still have to give them a good cleaning because there could be other potential contaminants such as listeria. Two key warnings:
• Never wash uncut produce before storing it. Bacteria needs moisture to grow, so wet produce spoils faster.

• Always cut off damaged areas; germs can thrive in those spots.
Cleaning leafy greens

For lettuce, chard, cabbage, spinach, and other leafy greens, you should cut off the outside leaves where dirt and bacteria are likely to lurk. Separate the remaining leaves and wash individually, rubbing gently to dislodge soil and bacteria. After washing blot dry with paper towels or use a salad spinner to remove excess moisture.

Cleaning tender produce

Wash plums, peaches, tomatoes, and other soft produce under cool, briskly running water for 30 to 60 seconds. Rubbing gently with your hands or a soft nylon scrubber can help remove soil, surface bacteria, and pesticides. Cut away any damaged or decayed areas. Dry thoroughly with clean paper towels.

Cleaning herbs

Place herbs and greens with smaller leaves (watercress, mesclun, and baby spinach) in a clean colander under running water; toss them around to ensure that all surfaces get a good rinsing. If greens are particularly dirty, loosen dirt and sand by swishing them in a clean bowl of water (not the sink), then rinsing. Dry thoroughly.

Cleaning rough-textured produce

Scrubbing is essential for dimply cantaloupes, which have been linked to recent disease outbreaks, and for gnarly root vegetables. Their uneven textures make it easier for bacteria to attach tightly in little crevices. And when you cut the produce open, the knife blade could transfer nasty bacteria from the outside to the inner flesh.

To minimize the risk of contaminating your food, scrub with a vegetable brush under briskly running water, even if you’re going to peel it. Dry thoroughly. The same technique can hold for all fruits and veggies with a hard skin or rind.

Cleaning produce you can peel

Even smooth-skinned fruits that you plan to peel should be washed, especially mangoes and papayas, which have been associated with disease outbreaks. But dirt can be transferred to any fruit once cut, so rub all produce gently with your hands under running water for 30 to 60 seconds, then dry thoroughly before you cut.

Apples, cucumbers, watermelon, and other firm produce that can be peeled, should be washed under running water with a veggie brush before peeling or eating. Be sure to use the fruit right away. Peeling and cutting releases nutrients and juices that encourage bacteria to grow.

Cleaning small fruits

Place fragile berries in a clean colander and use your sink sprayer to rinse thoroughly while tumbling them around. The same method works for hardier small fruits, but you can also rub them with your fingers to help dislodge any nasty hangers-on. Follow with a pat-down with paper towels. If you’re using strawberries, be sure to clean under the green cap.

Store it right, clean bins frequently

The best way to keep storage bins clean in your refrigerator is to remove the drawers often; wash them with warm water and dish detergent in a clean sink; and rinse and dry them thoroughly before you put them back. Other ways to avoid food-storage contamination:
• Clean the refrigerator weekly.
• Track the temperature-- it should not go above 40 degrees F.
• Chill produce once it has been cut.
• Stop cross-contamination by keeping cut-up produce or meats in clean, closed containers or sealed bags so the items don’t drip.
• Toss out leftover food that has been sitting out at room temperature for 2 hours.
• Limit what you buy -- most fruits and veggies should be eaten in 2 - 5 days. If you buy more than you can eat, it can go bad, mess up the fridge, and worse, become a food-safety hazard.
Related links

Summer food safety. 7/10 Centers for Disease Control, Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance.

Bagged salad: How clean? 3/10

Chicken safety: Organic vs. conventional. 1/10

Food Contaminants.

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