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Is Produce Safe to Eat?

Produce For Better Health

AMID THESE unprecedented times, there's a lot of confusion about whether fresh produce is safe to eat. Venture into any grocery store and you’ll find empty shelves of canned beans and vegetables, pasta, and even flour and sugar, but the produce aisle is overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables.

There have also been viral videos promoting fear by telling the public to wash their produce in bleach, detergent or dishwashing soap. So what's the truth when it comes to eating fresh produce?

Produce For Better Health turned to top experts in the country to answer this and other frequent questions regarding eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Importance of Fruits and Vegetables

According to the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines for Americans, 90% of Americans do not meet the daily recommendations for vegetables and about 85% don’t meet the daily recommendations for fruit. Nutritionist Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and CEO of Produce for Better Health Foundation, says, “In short, fruits and vegetables, regardless of form (fresh, frozen, canned, dried and 100% juice) are closely associated with a multitude of health and well being benefits.” Kapsak explains that decades of research and numerous studies confirm that increasing consumption of produce improves health and overall quality of life, as well as reduces the risk of chronic disease. For instance, a recent study found that if just half of all Americans increased their consumption of a fruit or vegetable by a single serving each day, 20,000 cancer cases could be prevented every year.

“We also know that most Americans don’t eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, and that’s an issue – particularly now,” says Kapsak. “In addition to bolstering immunity in the face of a global pandemic, new well being benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables, beyond physical health, continue to emerge.”

For instance, Produce for Better Health’s 2017 research study "Novel Approaches to Measuring and Promoting Fruit and Vegetable Consumption" showed that increased happiness and life satisfaction measures were reported with eating fruits and veggies more days per week. This is consistent with a growing number of global studies on the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables.

Is It Safe to Eat Fresh Produce?

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many folks have been afraid to pick up fresh produce when they order groceries for delivery or venture out to the market. However, Kapsak states that “fruits and vegetables should be thought of, first, as foods that keep you well rather than foods that make you sick.”

According to government officials, standard food safety practices should be sufficient to ensure that the fruits and vegetables we consume are safe during the COVID-19 outbreak. Food safety best practices that should be followed in your home during COVID-19 and beyond include clean, separate, cook and chill:

• Clean surfaces and your hands before and after handling foods.

• To wash fresh produce, it's recommended to run it under water only. If the produce has a tough exterior, like melon or potatoes, you can also use a clean stiff-bristled brush.

• Separate raw and ready-to-eat foods

• Cook foods to proper minimum internal temperatures

• Chill foods in the refrigerator or freezer

Are Some Types of Produce Safer Than Others?

Is a fruit with the skin, for example, like an orange is safer to eat compared to a fruit without a skin, like a berry? “There is no evidence that supports that any type of fresh fruit is safer than another,” explains Kapsak, who recommends treating all fruits the same and washing them thoroughly with plain water.

You can use a clean scrub brush on those with tougher skins, like melons. Even if you will be cutting and peeling, it’s recommended to rinse the whole fruit well under plain running water – no soap. Soap residue can lead to gastrointestinal distress. Donna Lynn Browne, director of Food Safety and Social Responsibility at Naturipe Farms LLC, agrees. “All fresh fruit cleaned using the recommended practices are as safe to eat now as they’ve always been.” Browne says consumers should feel as safe purchasing produce as any other product they're picking up from their local markets and grocery stores.

How Should You Wash Fresh Produce?

Bleach, detergent, chlorine and soap should not be used to clean fresh produce. These are all cleaners that are not meant to touch food and can get you sick. Even the residue from soap can irritate your gastrointestinal tract.

These are the steps to follow, according to the Food and Drug Administration:

Wash your hands properly with soap and water before and after preparing fresh fruit and vegetables.

Cut off any damaged or bruised areas before eating or handling.

Gently rub the produce while holding it under plain running water.

Use a clean vegetable brush to clean firm produce like potatoes, avocados and melons.

Don’t forget to rinse produce before you peel it, so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.

After rinsing, dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to reduce bacteria that may be present.

For leafy vegetables like cabbage or lettuce, remove and discard the outermost leaves before washing. Any packaged leafy green or salad that is labeled as “ready-to-eat,” “washed” or “triple washed” doesn't need to be washed before eating. In fact, the FDA recommends not to wash it in your sink, as it has more of a chance of getting contaminated that way.

As for packaging, for example a bag of apples, you can choose to remove the packaging and discard, but the FDA says that there are no documented cases of COVID-19 from food packages, so that's not a necessity to prevent illness.

What About Produce Touched By People Infected by COVID-19?

COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness, and according to the FDA, the virus is not known to be transmitted or carried by food or food packaging at this time.

So what about if someone else with COVID-19 touches fresh produce that you end up eating? “To date, the FDA has no evidence that any food, food containers or food packaging are in any way associated with the transmission of COVID-19,” explains Browne. “However, the FDA provides four key steps to follow to eliminate the transfer of the virus: clean, separate, cook and chill. Taking these four steps, along with proper hand-washing procedures, will significantly reduce the risk of any potential contamination.”

Bottom Line

“It cannot be stressed enough – fruits and vegetables are key to safeguarding our health and well-being,” says Kapsak. Your goal at this time should be to take in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in any form, including fresh.

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