April 26, 2005
Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and the author of The Enlightened Eater's Whole Foods Guide: Harvest the Power of Phyto Foods (Viking Canada), writes that over the past few years, consumers have become increasingly savvy about food-safety issues. Proper handling techniques for preparing such items as poultry and meat are practised on a regular basis. Yet when it comes to produce, many of these same knowledgeable people are leaving themselves vulnerable to food-borne illness. But in some cases, getting sick from contaminated fruits or vegetables is beyond their control.
Schwartz says that according to a recently released report, such was the case for 561 people in the United States and Canada last summer when they ate Roma tomatoes contaminated with salmonella, the same bacterium that can cause illness from undercooked chicken. U.S. health officials tracked the salmonella-tomato link to multiple locations of a delicatessen chain. The original source of the contamination has not yet been tracked. In cases such as this, investigators look at the possible causes -- starting with the eatery -- and then trace them back to the tomato-packing facilities and the farms where the produce was grown. By doing so, it is thought that the sources of food-borne illness can be pinpointed and the problems then corrected.
Food-borne illness from produce is more common than most people think. In the United States, an analysis of more than 3,500 food-poisoning outbreaks carried out by a consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, revealed contaminated produce is responsible for the greatest number of individual food-borne illnesses.
Schwartz provides a list of food safety tips for consumers such as handwashing, and goes on to recommend that consumers wash all fruits and vegetables before eating, even those where the rind or peel is discarded. While it may sound a little obsessive, you may change your mind after taking a few considerations into account. For example, there have been reports of such bacteria as salmonella being found on cantaloupe rinds. The bacteria may originate from the fields where the fruit is grown. In addition, most fruits and vegetables are frequently handled by an assortment of people in the supermarket. We have all witnessed the shoppers who choose their melons by picking them up and giving them a good sniff.
While tree fruit will not likely have come into contact with unclean water, the hands of an agricultural worker or supermarket employee are another matter. Oranges, mangoes, papayas or any fruit that you might peel with a knife should all first be washed.