How to Prepare Fresh Produce Safely

In California, fresh produce is a big deal. In fact, approximately 90% of all leafy greens produced in the United States are grown in California and Arizona.

But as healthy and tasty as fresh produce is, it can be one of the trickier food items to handle safely. Produce is often eaten raw, which means if it picks up any pathogens, those pathogens won’t be killed during cooking.

Most of the time, foodborne germs are more likely to be found in animal products like eggs, chicken, beef, etc. But sometimes germs can find their way to produce, either in the field where it’s grown or after it’s been harvested.

Foodborne illness outbreaks associated with fresh produce

Every year on average, there are 93 foodborne illness outbreaks linked to raw produce. These outbreaks sicken nearly 3,000 people across the United States each year.

Graph showing produce-caused outbreaks in the United States from 1998 to 2017

Although leafy greens and fruit are two of the most common culprits, foodborne pathogens can get on any food item. Since 1998, outbreaks have been linked to dozens of different types of raw produce.

Among the outbreaks caused by raw produce, three pathogens are the most common: Norovirus, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli. You may recall the E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce in 2018 and 2019.

Although most people recover from food poisoning on their own, foodborne illness sometimes requires them to go to the hospital. In rare cases, people can die.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to help protect yourself and the people you serve from illness:

1. Purchase from approved suppliers

One of the most important things you can do to make sure your produce is safe to eat is to only purchase food from an approved supplier. For commercial food establishments, this isn’t just a good idea, it’s a legal requirement.

Approved produce suppliers are regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, or FDA. They have to follow strict requirements for growing and shipping food. These requirements help prevent contamination, although mistakes and accidents can still happen.

If you’re selecting produce at the store, the CDC recommends choosing items that aren’t bruised or damaged.

Also, keep an eye out for any product recalls. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions if you determine that you have a recalled product. Usually this entails throwing out or returning the recalled product and cleaning and sanitizing the shelves where the product was stored.

If you work in retail, you should also notify your customers of the recall in accordance with your company policy.

2. Store cut produce below 41°F (5°C)

The second thing you can do to help keep your produce safe is to store it correctly. Some produce items, including leafy greens, tomatoes, and melons become TCS foods after they’re cut or sliced.

TCS (Time/temperature Control for Safety) foods are particularly vulnerable to bacterial growth. If you don’t take steps to control their temperature or the time they’ve spent in the temperature danger zone, bacteria can grow to hazardous levels and make the food unsafe to eat.

You should store TCS foods, like cut produce, in the refrigerator to keep them below 41°F (5°C). Don’t leave them out at room temperature longer than four hours.

In the fridge or cold storage area, put your produce on the top shelves and cover it to help keep other foods from contaminating it.

3. Prepare produce safely

Fresh produce typically doesn’t require much preparation since it’s almost always eaten raw. But however you plan to prepare it, there are two main things you should keep in mind:

  1. Always rinse off produce items before cutting or serving them — including produce items with rinds. Make sure you get off any dirt or debris. Although it seems simple, this step can help remove some pathogens from food surfaces. The CDC provides seven tips for cleaning fruits and vegetables effectively.
  2. Prevent cross-contamination by keeping your produce far away from raw animal products. Make sure your knife and cutting board are clean and sanitized, and if possible use a separate knife and cutting board for the produce.

How long fresh produce stays good

In addition to following the above tips to handle produce safely, make sure to keep an eye on how long you’ve had each item. A good rule of thumb is to eat or freeze leftover food within 7 days. Don’t eat anything that looks or smells off — especially if you see mold.

Uncut produce items typically last even longer. For instance, an uncut apple can last as long as 8 weeks if it’s stored in the fridge.

Use the FIFO (First In, First Out) system to organize your food storage and help reduce food waste. With this method, you put new food items behind the old ones on the shelf, making it easier for you to grab the oldest food first and use it before it goes bad.

In summary, following these tips as you purchase, store, and prepare fresh produce will help reduce the risk of foodborne pathogens and keep your customers safer. After all, they shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick from a normally healthy salad!

For more information about preparing food safely, check out our California food handlers card training.

— Jessica Pettit

Updated: August 7, 2020 — 2:54 pm
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