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Food Safety and Quality > Food Blog > Posts > Consumers Should Discriminate for Safety When Buying Produce

With the USDA's most recent push for us to consume more produce (www.Choose My Plate.gov) we are encouraged to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, to shoot for a goal of covering one half of our plates with fruits and vegetables, and then eating them up of course.

fresh vegetables But with increased intake of produce, especially raw produce, it is inevitable that there will be accompanying increases in foodborne illness incidents caused by harmful bacteria that are naturally present on agricultural products.

Consumers must follow safe handling guidelines for produce at home (www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/consumers/ucm114299) but first, at the market consumers need to become more vigilant about the conditions and surroundings of the produce they purchase.

The Buy Fresh and Local movement is a good one. We are supporting local growers of produce while reaping the benefits of consuming produce that has been recently harvested at closer to the peak of ripeness and has not been exposed to extended travel conditions and the accompanying increased likelihood of contamination. But consumers should not be naive. Any produce, organically or conventionally grown, can be contaminated if it is not handled properly while in the field, during harvest and packaging, or on the way from the farm to market.

Growers or processors are responsible for preventing bacteria in the soil or water from contaminating fresh fruits or vegetables where they're grown or processed. Consumers should ask some common sense questions of the seller/grower (likely the same person in local markets).

Be proactive and ask:

  • About irrigation water. What is the source and is it tested periodically? Is it applied drip style or overhead spray? Drip is preferable.
  • About use of manure. There are proper procedures for composting and a minimum waiting period between application and harvest, depending on whether the produce grows touching the ground or not.
  • Do they teach safe food handling and hygiene to field and packaging workers?
  • Do they exclude or restrict sick workers?
  • Do they refrigerate during storage and transport?
  • Do they provide hand washing and bathrooms facilities, readily available to employees?
  • Do they clean and sanitize containers and vehicles used for storage and transport?
  • Do they label growing plots and containers for traceability in case of a foodborne illness outbreak?

Look around while at the sellers stand.

  • Are tables and containers clean? Ask if they're washed and sanitized between uses.
  • Are there animals around the area?
  • If produce is sold out of a vehicle, what's the appearance?
  • Are containers of food on the floor?
  • Are baskets lined with cloth that can be washed or disposable paper liners?
  • Are samples held under refrigeration at less than 41°F?

Whether at a local farmer's market or a supermarket, be choosey.


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