Safety matters: Vegetables

Myth: Foodborne pathogens are only of concern when dealing with raw meat products.

Fact: Foodborne pathogens are of concern with any raw product, including vegetables. These are all pathogens we know, E. coli, Hepatitis A, Listeria monocytogenesthe list goes on and on. These foods are healthy, and we’re encouraged to eat a lot of them — but how can we ensure that they’re safe?

This is our fourth installment in our “Safety Matters” series. We’ve previously discussed safety procedures for ground beef, steak and hot dogs.

How does my produce come into contact with foodborne pathogens?

E. coli can survive in the soil for up to 28 days — but don’t worry about it somehow migrating into the roots of your plants. A 2006 study on baby spinach debunked that myth, saying it was “unlikely” that this sort of situation would occur. That doesn’t mean all of your produce is safe. The study doesn’t necessarily translate to all plants, and doesn’t eliminate all risks of E. coli and other pathogens on plants.

Plants may come into contact with pathogens through fresh manure that can contain any number of harmful bacteria. Additionally, sick farm workers, unsanitary equipment and irrigation water can also be of cause for concern.

How common are foodborne illnesses from vegetables?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed 4,589 outbreaks spanning from 1998–2008, nearly half of the illnesses were reported from produce. Produce, in this case, was a grouping of fruits and nuts, fungi vegetables, leafy vegetables, root vegetables, sprout vegetables and vine-stalk vegetables. Of these, leafy vegetables were responsible for the most illnesses, with about 46% being caused by norovirus.

Further investigation showed that the products were most commonly contaminated during preparation or service by a sick food handler. However, several outbreaks were caused from contamination during production and/or processing.

What about organic products — I don’t have to worry about those, right?

Wrong. A study in 2004 revealed that “organic produce may contain a significantly higher risk of fecal contamination than conventionally grown produce.”

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that organic is a higher-risk food. Researchers merely said that the study showed there was room for improvement in organic agriculture.

So… what can I do to protect myself?

First, avoid any produce that has mold, bruises or cuts, as bacteria love these places to hide and grow. Suggestions from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also says wash all of your produce (loose or pre-bagged), even if the label says “ready to eat.”

To wash, run cool tap water before eating, serving or peeling and dry with a clean cloth or paper towel.

Additionally, use separate cutting boards, wash your hands after touching any raw products, and to be aware that even cooked produce can spoil. For best quality, eat pre-cooked produce within three to four days.

What about at-home gardens?

Some tips from Colorado State University include:

  • Keep your garden in an area away from animal pens, manure or compost piles. Also do your best to check for contamination from runoff water from nearby neighbors.
  • Use potable water. If not available, use groundwater.
  • Don’t apply fresh manure to your soil. Be sure to compost properly to kill most foodborne pathogens.
  • Thoroughly wash your hands after applying manure, turning the compost pile or any other manure-related activity. Keep your tools and clothes used for gardening cleaned as well.

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