Produce

While fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals, they may also carry bacteria and other germs that can make you sick. The good news is that you can do something about it. Here’s how to shop for them and what you should do at home when storing and preparing them as well as proper ways to clean up afterwards.

Shop Safely for Produce

Sanitize the shopping cart handle

Those free sanitizer wipes found near most carts are there for a reason. Use them to eliminate the bacteria and other germs that may be lurking on the handle. Why risk carrying someone else’s germs home with you?

Make sure your produce is fresh.

You should buy fruit and vegetables that are as fresh as possible. Stay away from items that don’t look or smell right. And though it should go without saying, always avoid fruit or vegetables that have cuts, are moldy, or wilted.

Don’t buy cut melons or cut leafy greens unless they’re cold.

Cut melons and cut leafy greens may contain bacteria, which will grow if the produce is not kept cold. Don’t buy these items unless they’re refrigerated or surrounded by ice.

Bag produce before placing it into your cart.

The produce department usually provides disposable plastic bags for bagging up fruit and vegetables. Use these to protect produce from being contaminated by juices from a leaking package of raw meat or poultry – fluids which might be on a cart, scale or checkout counter.

Separate your produce from raw food

Don’t put packages of raw meat, poultry, and seafood on top of or next to fruit and vegetables. That’s asking for trouble. Try putting raw food on the bottom tray of the cart where you typically put cases of water or soda.

Bag your produce safely when using the self-checkout.

If you’re bagging your own groceries, make sure you don’t bag fruit and vegetables with raw meat, poultry or seafood. Otherwise that pot roast you just bought could end up leaking onto your apples or grapes.

Don’t wash fruit and vegetables before putting them in the refrigerator.

If you do, you’ll most likely end up with moldy food. Instead, wash fruit and vegetables right before you prepare or serve them.

Store cut melons and leafy greens at the correct temperature.

Your refrigerator should be set to hold food at an internal temperature of 40°F (4°C) or lower. Cut melons and cut leafy greens, such as lettuce, have to be stored at these temperatures to stay safe. Other types of fruit and vegetables don’t. For example, avocados and tomatoes will do better if stored at room temperature. So will bananas and pears. For other kinds of produce, ask someone in your store’s produce department whether or not they should be chilled – chances are, you should do whatever the store does.

Store Produce Safely

Label your leftover vegetable dishes before storing them.

Here’s something you may not know: Vegetable dishes need to be refrigerated once they have been cooked. Any bacteria on them will grow if they are left out at room temperature. Labeling leftovers will help you know when you can use them and when to toss them out. Leftover vegetables kept at 40°F (4°C) or lower are good for up to seven days. After that, throw them out. The count begins the day you store the leftovers. So you can eat Wednesdays green bean casserole through Tuesday of the following week.

Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood from dripping onto produce.

Never let raw meat, poultry, or seafood drip onto produce in your refrigerator. Even though produce is usually stored in its own drawer, don’t kid yourself and think it’s safe. It only takes a drop of blood or other juices to put your fruit and vegetables at risk. If it happens, it’s best to dispose of the produce rather than take a chance. Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood in leak proof containers to help prevent this. See the Meat, Poultry, or Seafood sections for more information.

Prepare produce away from raw meat, poultry and seafood.

Separate raw food and ready-to-eat food when preparing it. For example, when getting ready for that summer cookout, prepare the lettuce and tomatoes well away from the raw hamburger patties and wash your hands before moving from one to the other.

 

Wash your hands before handling produce.

This is especially important if you are not going to cook it. See the General Food Safety section for some hand washing tips that will help keep you and your family safe.

Cook vegetables served buffet-style to the correct temperature.

The only way to kill bacteria on food is to cook it to the correct temperature. That’s the internal temperature of the food, not the temperature of whatever you’re using to cook it. You’ll need a thermometer to do this correctly. Fruit and vegetables can be cooked to any temperature if you are going to eat them right away. But if you’re going to cook the produce and then put it in a crockpot to keep it warm, you have to cook it to at least 135°F (57°C). See the General Food Safety section for some tips on how to use thermometers correctly.

Never leave cooked produce out for long periods of time.

There’s no harm in taking an after-dinner break, right? Wrong. Cooking fruits and vegetables does not kill all of the bacteria on them. So any that remains can grow, especially if they’re left at room temperature for very long.

One last warning: When serving cooked fruit and vegetables buffet-style for a dinner party, make sure they don’t sit out for more than four hours. Once they are cooked, keep an eye on the clock and toss them out after four hours.

 

Wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly under running water just before use.

It is especially important to wash produce before cutting or cooking it. Make sure the water you use is a little warmer than the produce. Pay special attention to leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach. Remove the outer leaves, and pull the lettuce or spinach completely apart. Then rinse it thoroughly. According to the USDA, lettuce that is precut and bagged does not have to be washed. But check to make sure the package says it has been prewashed. When washing firm produce, such as potatoes and melons, the USDA recommends using a clean produce brush.

Clean and sanitize before preparing produce that will be eaten raw.

Don’t just clean, but sanitize too! It doesn’t take long so make the time, it’s an important step in keeping you and your family safe.

Any equipment that will be used to prepare produce must be washed, rinsed and sanitized. That includes your countertops, knives, cutting boards, tongs and other utensils. Just rinsing or wiping them down does no good and will only put you and others at risk. See the General Food Safety section to find out how to clean and sanitize safely – it can be quick and easy.