While food-borne parasites are frequently associated with meat products, you might not be aware that there have also been major outbreaks connected to contaminated produce. Contamination occurs in different stages of food production, from the growing to the harvesting and during prep and storage.
Although microscopic, these parasites can still contaminate fruits and vegetables in different ways. They can be present in the soil where the crops were grown, in the fertilizer, in the water, in the hands of the field workers, in processing plants and even in the water used to pre-wash them. Parasites can also come in during packaging and in transport, so you really never know at what point they could have been there and how you can avoid them.
There are many kinds of sickness caused by microbial contamination. One of the largest events water-borne illness was caused by and organism called, Cryptosporidium parvum. In 1993, this illness caused sickness among 403,000 people in Milwaukee alone. The organism is known to thrive in apples, lettuce, and other vegetables.
There have been many cases of illness arising from Giardia duodenalis which has affected both humans and other animals worldwide. This waterborne organism is known to affect individuals who drink from natural sources, but it has also affected community water supplies. Problems have also been reported from contamination from Cyclospora cayetanensis. Although very rare in more industrialized countries, this parasite is known to thrive in tropical produce. Records of outbreaks have been traced to products including fresh herbs, snow peas, raspberries, and salad greens.
The presence of these parasites in produce can lead to severe diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nausea. Although the symptoms will eventually go on their own, the waiting time is still very uncomfortable and painful for the affected person.
Foodborne illnesses can arise from raw produce that has not been properly washed. Because of this, the FDA highly recommends thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables under clean running water, including pre-washed and packaged produce. A lot of people skip this step with the misconception that packaged fruits and vegetables have already been thoroughly cleaned. However, even when they have undergone meticulous packaging processes, there is still not guarantee that they are already free of disease-causing parasites. The same thing can be said when you are buying imported produce, especially since you are not entirely aware of the transportation, preparation, and storage that these products have been through. Re-washing these products place additional safety measure. Aside from the parasites, washing prior to preparation also reduces the pesticide residue, especially for commercially-grown food. That is not to say that organic produce does not need washing. In fact, these products have probably been contaminated from the soil where they were grown in. As a general rule, it is best to wash any fruits and vegetables regardless of their source.
Although there is still no reassurance that washing will totally remove all of the parasites since they are microscopic and have entered the creases and crevices of the produce, washing helps in reducing their presence and hopefully will not be sufficient enough to cause illnesses.
The FDA has released a guide on how to wash produce. Prior to handling produce, make sure that your hands are clean by washing it with soap and under clean, filtered, running water. Lather and scrub your hands really well, including your fingers, your nails and the back of your hands as bacteria can be present in these areas. Rinse your hands really well under filtered water and dry it properly. If any of your produce has damaged or bruised parts, make sure to cut it and throw it away. Rub the produce under clean, running water. You can also use a produce wash for added measure. Make sure to wash fruits and vegetables prior to peeling it. This will ensure that dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the cutting knife from the skin to the produce. It would also help if you sanitize your kitchen preparation tools before and after using them. When cleaning vegetables with crevices in their skins, or those with hard skins, scrub the surface of the vegetable using a clean vegetable brush. Dry off the produce using a paper towel to remove any remaining bacteria. Prior to eating lettuce and cabbage, peel off and throw away the outermost leaves.
As mentioned earlier, there are some washes that you can use to clean your produce. Water is not enough, be it in removing the pesticide residue or in removing away those parasites that are living in your produce. It doesn’t have to cost much. In fact, you can create your own produce wash and most of the ingredients are already in your cupboard.
A very good produce wash can be made from Vinegar and Filtered Water. Vinegar is a great product to use as a produce wash since it is effective in removing those waxes or films applied on your produce. With this product, you can also reduce the pesticide residue which is highly present in products such as apple.
Prepare your wash with three parts water and one part vinegar. Make sure that the preparation is enough to submerge your produce on it. Soak the produce for 60 seconds. If your produce has a firm skin or has crevices, you can also scrub it while soaking. Take it out of the wash, rinse and dry the produce properly.
Another produce wash can be made from Hydrogen Peroxide and Water. Hydrogen peroxide is an effective bleaching agent, and that is why it is used in most households for cleaning up. For the produce wash, you will be using a food grade hydrogen peroxide with three percent solution, since this is the non-toxic kind. Using diluted peroxide to wash produce is an effective way to kill off those harmful parasites, as well as getting rid of insects, mold, and dirt.
Prepare your diluted peroxide wash using one tablespoon of peroxide per gallon of cold water. Prepare another bowl or sink filled with fresh, clean water. Submerge your produce to the mixture, making sure that it is completely soaked. Swirl your water during the soak and after ten minutes, remove the produce and transfer it to the prepared fresh water. Let it soak and thoroughly rinse it. Clean it using a dry towel and store it properly.
Do you routinely wash your produce? If so, please share your favorite methods and mixtures below in the comments box.