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Posts Tagged ‘fresh produce’

Keeping Farm Fresh Veggies and Fruits Fresh

Keeping those farm fresh veggies and fruits fresh

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

Recently I had a call from a mom asking if she should wash her berries before storing in the fridge. Her 30-something daughter, who, of course, knows everything, insisted that she should wash first. The mom wasn’t so sure. In this case, mom knew best.

I too, after a weekend visit to the farm market, am faced with the task of preparing the produce for storage, some of which carry vestiges of field dirt, or may be wet from a recent wash in the packinghouse. I don’t want them to spoil before I can eat them all. And, most of all, I do not want to waste what is edible.

So what is the best way to treat your veggies and fruits and ensure that they will be in the best condition when you go to use them? Well, it depends. Fresh fruits and vegetables require different storage methods and can be stored for various lengths of time.

Best at room temperature—until cut

First, know that some fruits and vegetables keep their quality better if NOT stored in the refrigerator. These include fresh tomatoes, potatoes, onions (except for spring onions and scallions, which must be refrigerated), winter squash, pumpkin and melons, until ripe, then refrigerate. However, once any of these are cut open, they should be refrigerated. Fruits and vegetables stored at room temperature should be in a cool, dry, pest-free, well-ventilated area separate from household chemicals.

Best in the refrigerator

To wash or not to wash? Even the experts disagree when giving advice on washing garden produce. Some tell you not to wash before storage and some will tell you to wash off any garden dirt before even bringing produce into the home. At issue is this: if you bring in garden dirt on your fresh produce, you may be introducing pathogenic microorganisms into your kitchen—while, if you wash your produce before storage, you run the risk of increasing the likelihood that your fresh produce will mold and rot more quickly.

If you choose to wash produce before storage, be sure to thoroughly dry fruits and vegetables with a clean paper towel. If you choose to store without washing, take care to shake, rub or brush off any garden dirt with a paper towel or soft brush while still outside. Never wash berries until you are ready to eat them (Mom was right). Storing fresh produce in plastic bags or containers will minimize the chance that you might contaminate other foods in the refrigerator. Keep your refrigerator fruit and vegetable bin clean. Keep your refrigerator at 40° F or less. If your refrigerator has a fruit and vegetable bin, use that, but be sure to store fresh produce away from (above) raw meats, poultry or fish.

All stored produce should be checked regularly for signs of spoilage such as mold and slime. If spoiled, toss it out. All cut, peeled or cooked vegetables or fruits should be stored in clean, covered containers in the refrigerator at 40° F or less.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Storage Chart

Fruit/Vegetable Storage method/time Tips
Beans, green or yellow Refrigerator crisper: up to 3 days Store in plastic bags. Do not wash before storing. Wet beans will develop black spots and decay quickly. Wash before preparation.
Broccoli Refrigerator crisper: 3 to 5 days Store in loose, perforated plastic bags.  Wash before using.
Beets, Carrots, Parsnips, Radish, Turnips Refrigerator crisper: 1 to 2 weeks Remove green tops and store vegetables in plastic bags. Trim the taproots from radishes before storing.  Wash before using.
Berries Refrigerator crisper: 2-3 days Before storing berries, remove any spoiled or crushed fruits. Store unwashed in plastic bags or containers.  Do not remove green tops from strawberries before storing.  Wash gently under cool running water before using.
Chard Refrigerator crisper: 2-3 days. Store leaves in plastic bags. The stalks can be stored longer if separated from the leaves.  Wash before using.
Corn Refrigerator crisper: 1 to 2 days For best flavor, use corn immediately.  Corn in husks can be stored in plastic bags for 1 to 2 days.
Cucumbers Refrigerator crisper: up to 1 week Wipe clean and store in plastic bags.  Do not store with apples or tomatoes.  Wash before using.
Herbs Refrigerator crisper: 2 to 3 days Herbs may be stored in plastic bags or place upright in a glass of water (stems down). Cover loosely with plastic bag.
Lettuce, spinach and other greens Refrigerator crisper: 5 to 7 days for lettuce; 1 to 2 days for greens Discard outer or wilted leaves. Store in plastic bags in the refrigerator crisper. Wash before using.
Melons At room temperature until ripe

Refrigerator: 3 to 4 days for cut melon

For best flavor, store melons at room temperature until ripe. Store ripe, cut melon covered in the refrigerator.  Wash rind before cutting.
Nectarines, Peaches, Pears Refrigerator crisper: 5 days Ripen the fruit at room temperature, and then
refrigerate it in plastic bags. Wash before eating.
Peppers Refrigerator crisper: up to 2 weeks Wipe clean and store in plastic bags.  Wash before using.
Summer squash, patty pan Refrigerator: 2-3 days Wipe clean and store in plastic bags.  Wash before eating.
Tomatoes Room temperature; once cut, refrigerator crisper: 2 to 3 days Fresh ripe tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator.  Refrigeration makes them tasteless and mealy. Wipe clean and store tomatoes at room temperature away from sunlight.  Wash before eating. (Refrigerate only extra-ripe tomatoes you want to keep from ripening any further.) Store cut tomatoes in the refrigerator.

For a more inclusive list of produce likely to be purchased from your local farm market, go to www.foodsafety.uconn.edu and go to Storing Fresh Garden Produce.

Fresh produce can be a source of the microorganisms that cause foodborne illness. The consumer shares responsibility for the safety of the produce they eat. Store safely in a clean refrigerator or storage area; when it is time to prepare your fruits and vegetables for eating, be sure to wash well: do not soak produce in water, but rinse well or dunk and swish in water just to cover, using fingers or scrub brush as appropriate. There is no need use special veggie washes or bleach in the wash water.

For more information on washing and storing fresh fruits and vegetables, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Listeria and Fresh Produce

What is Listeria and why is it showing up in fresh produce?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety

 

dole spinach

Photo: FDA

Yet another outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes has been attributed to fresh produce: bagged lettuce in this case. You may recall the 2011 outbreak associated with cantaloupe that turned out to be the deadliest Listeria outbreak ever in the US. And, Listeria was also the cause of an outbreak tied to apples (and caramel apples) in 2015.

It’s not only produce that has been associated with Listeria contamination. In 2015 alone, there were over 45 recalls of various FDA regulated food products, including pet foods (raw/frozen for the most part), deli salads, cheeses, sprouts, processed salmon products, and ice cream (Blue Bell, Jeni’s). Recalls also were carried out for apples and apple slices, spinach, and frozen vegetables.

So what is Listeria monocytogenes (LM) and where is it coming from?

LM is a bacterial species that was first described in 1926 after an outbreak in guinea pigs and rabbits. For many years, it was known as a disease of animals, including small ruminants, often called “circling” disease. One source of the disease is spoiled silage, causing illness during the winter and spring months after long-term storage of silage. When I first started working in food safety education, it was known as an “emerging pathogen” as it was just starting to become a big problem in the human food system.

The first documentation of a major human outbreak was in 1981. This Canadian outbreak was attributed to coleslaw made from cabbage likely contaminated by sheep manure. The outbreak resulted in 41 cases of illness, 34 of which were pregnant women. There were 18 deaths.

Since then, Listeria has been the cause of outbreaks in dairy products, including a variety of cheeses, processed meats such as hot dogs and cold cuts, sprouts, and, most recently fresh produce. Increased testing over time by government agencies including the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has also resulted in many recalls that may have helped to reduce outbreaks from products that are removed from the marketplace.

So why is this now a problem for fresh produce?

Listeria has become pretty much ubiquitous in the food-processing environment. While it’s certainly present in the soil, water, and animal feces, the big problems often arise from food that is processed and/or held in a processing or storage facility that is wet and cold. This is where the bug can grow and multiply if not dealt with by employing scrupulous sanitation programs.

Some of the characteristics of Listeria that make it a particular problem are:

  • While most consumers are likely to think that it is what they ate in the last 48 hours that made them sick, Listeria has a long incubation period—as much as 3 weeks. This means that when you eat a food contaminated with Listeria, you may not feel ill or experience some of the worst complications, such as miscarriage until weeks later. Foodborne illness experts often start an investigation with a food recall. Do you remember what you ate for lunch on a Tuesday two or three weeks ago?
  • Foods that may be more likely to be contaminated with Listeria are ready to eat foods such as cold cuts, other deli foods, cheese or some fresh fruits and vegetables. Therefore, we do not cook it away.
  • While most people are at least somewhat aware of the risk of Listeria from hot dogs, cold cuts or unpasteurized cheeses, they are less likely to connect it to bagged lettuce or cantaloupe. In the 1990s there was a string of outbreaks related to hot dogs and cold cuts. In 2003, FSIS passed a Listeria Rule that addressed many of the problems in that industry.
  • Listeria likes cold temperatures-found in refrigerators, coolers and cool processing rooms. Wet AND cold processing environments are Listeria’s
  • Inadequate or ineffective sanitation practices can miss the Listeria that might be hiding in floor drains or biofilms, which are a substance not unlike plaque on your teeth that forms when bacteria adhere to a surface, then create a matrix that can build up over time and protect the bacteria from routine cleaning practices. Periodically, these biofilms can break open, releasing the bacteria to contaminate a seemingly clean surface.

Several Listeria outbreaks have been traced to packing facilities (such as the recent apple and cantaloupe outbreaks) where cold, wet environments that are not cleaned adequately can be the problem. Floor drains, conveyor rollers, dunk tanks can all be sources of this bug. Perhaps a contributing condition might be the presence of animal manure on the farm.

Yet another issue is that consumers are demanding that their fresh produce is provided in ever more convenient forms—cleaned, chopped lettuce in bags, sliced apples, cut celery, coleslaw mix, to name just a few. The more handling, the more opportunity for contamination.

So what is a consumer to do?

First, know your risk. Listeria is a bit of a chameleon. We are all routinely exposed to LM, due to its ubiquitous nature. Yet we do not all get sick from it. A young adult with a healthy immune system may make it through a bout of Listeriosis with barely a symptom. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “at least 90% of people who get Listeria infections are in a higher risk group. Healthy children and adults occasionally get infected with Listeria, but they rarely become seriously ill.”

So, if you are 65 or older, have a compromised immune system due to illness or medical interventions, and if you are pregnant, avoid foods that are more likely to be contaminated with LM. Do not eat foods from the deli case, cold cuts or hot dogs unless you heat them to 165 degrees F. Do not drink raw milk or eat cheeses made from raw milk. Fresh produce is trickier. You certainly can cook most fruits and vegetables, but you may not want to cook everything—though you could add spinach and other greens to a hot soup. So the next best thing is to handle fresh fruits and vegetables safely.

  • Rinse raw fruits and vegetables, thoroughly under cool running tap water before eating, cutting, or cooking. Even if the produce will be peeled, wash it first. There is no need for special veggie washes. Studies have shown that cold water alone (along with brushing when appropriate) can remove 85-98% of bacteria.
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush (wash the brush in a dishwasher after using).
  • Dry the produce with a paper towel.
  • Store fresh fruits and vegetables in a clean, DRY, location. Always refrigerate once cut. Store away from raw meats, poultry, fish or eggs.

And, keep your refrigerator clean.

Remember that Listeria monocytogenes likes cold, wet environments—even your home fridge. Using an appliance thermometer, make sure that your refrigerator is at 40°F or lower and the freezer 0°F or lower.

Be sure to clean up all spills in your refrigerator right away–especially juices from hot dog and lunch meat packages, raw meat and poultry, and, of course, those rotting fruits and veggies that lie forgotten at the bottom of the drawer. Regularly clean the inside walls and shelves of your refrigerator with hot water and liquid soap, then rinse and pat dry.

And finally, be sure to monitor your fruit and veggie storage drawer. Throw out anything that is beginning to spoil, is moldy or has other signs of decay.

For more information on safe handling of produce and preventing foodborne illness, go to www.foodsafety.uconn.edu or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Post-Harvest Handling Workshop

In June, UConn Extension hosted a Small-Scale, Low-Cost Facility Design for Post-Harvest Handling, with Robert Hadad, Cornell Cooperative Extension Vegetable Specialist.  Connecticut and Rhode Island farmers from smaller fruit and vegetable operations learned low-cost ways to address food safety of fresh produce through cooling, washing, use of sanitizers and packing area sanitation. Robert is shown with his low cost “4 sticks and a lid” wash setup, a home-made hand washing sink with food pump, and a greens washing system made with a Jacuzzi motor.

Robert

Robert Haddad of Cornell

homeade hand washing sink

Homeade hand washing sink.

greens washing system

Greens washing system

Grow a Safe Salad

By: Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety

clemson lettuce

Photo: Clemson Extension

Year round farmers markets are already selling early spring greens to those of us who have been craving the fresh, locally grown stuff during the long winter months. The use of greenhouses, cold frames and hoop houses and other season-extending contraptions make it possible for Connecticut farmers to satiate the growing appetite for lettuce, kale, spinach and arugula as early as February. Even home gardeners, eager to get their growing season under way before the last killing frost are using cold frames and row covers.

As the first of our favorite greens begin to show up in our gardens and farmers markets, it is a good time to refresh the memory regarding the need to handle them with a bit of care and good sense. Greens have developed a bit of a reputation for being the source of some relatively large foodborne disease outbreaks.

Lettuce and other greens are grown in the soil in the natural environment, near farm animals and wildlife. Norovirus, Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7, which can come from water and soil contaminated with animal waste, are all microorganisms that cause foodborne disease outbreaks associated with fresh greens.

In 2013, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published its report addressing the attribution of foodborne illness to foods and pathogens (organisms that cause illness) from 1998-2008. This report looked at all foodborne illness, identifying that leafy greens are associated with 22% of all foodborne illness. Most of us were quite aware of the outbreak resulting from bagged spinach in 2006. But greens associated outbreaks and recalls (testing indicates the presence of pathogens, but no one has reported an illness), continue.

A look at outbreak statistics since 2010 indicate that there may have been some improvement. This could be the result of a number of initiatives and practices addressing the safety of produce as a whole and leafy greens, particularly. The first was GAP or Good Agricultural Practices audit programs.

For almost 20 years, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have encouraged produce farmers to follow GAP guidelines developed to help reduce the risk for illness from fresh produce. Talk to your local produce farmer or look for labels that might tell you if the produce you are choosing was grown and harvested following GAP guidelines. Growers that follow GAP guidelines review their on-farm food safety practices during growing, harvesting, processing and transporting of fresh produce including:

  • Application of manure (use of composted or treated manure, how it is applied)
  • Home gardeners would do well to follow the guidelines that GAP farmers use, even if on a smaller scale.
  • Pay attention to the source of the water you use in your garden.
  • Use only well composted manure and compost.
  • Wash hands before harvest and use clean harvest bins.

In recent years, it appears that fewer outbreaks have been tied to leafy greens. This may be due to GAP food safety auditing programs required by large customers such as grocery stores or big box stores. Farmers participating in the GAP program are doing the best job they can to include preventive steps that help produce safer spinach and arugula. However, food safety is still everyone’s responsibility. You need to handle leafy greens safely at home, by making it your habit to do the following:

  • Keep in mind that organic greens are just as likely to be contaminated with bacteria or other microorganisms as conventionally grown produce.

For more information about the safe handling of fresh greens and other produce, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at 860.486.6271 or visit the UConn food safety website at: www.foodsafety.uconn.edu.

Gardens, gardens, everywhere…

….be sure to grow with food safety in mind

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety

raised garden bedsIt is hard to believe that spring is just around the corner. Though we in Connecticut were all teased with 35-degree temperatures, we are quickly back in the deep freeze, surrounded by ugly, dirty snow piles that are just not going away.

But go away, they will…and it won’t be long before many churches, schools, community organizations and day care centers are planning, digging and planting their vegetable garden. Gardens have become very popular. It seems like everyone has or wants one: to teach kids about where their food comes from, to grow food to donate to food pantries or community organizations, to save a little money on the ever increasing food budget, or simply for a little outdoor exercise. The locally grown movement has also helped to fuel the garden trend.

If you are working with a group of folks on a community/school/church garden, have you thought beyond the seed catalogues, watering schedules or how you are going to share your bounty? Will this bounty be grown, harvested and handled post-harvest in a way that will minimize the possibility of contamination with the microorganisms that might cause foodborne illness?

Did you know that fresh produce is the number one food source of foodborne illness in the US? The Centers for Disease Control found that 46% of all foodborne illnesses from 1998 to 2008 were attributed to produce and 23% of deaths from foodborne illness (meat and poultry contributed to more deaths-29%).

And yet, few think as they are growing produce to be shared with school children or those with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables that they might want to consider the fact that there are microorganisms in the soil, in bird poop or on the hands of the harvesters that could, in fact, make someone sick—especially those that may have a compromised immune system such as those that have a chronic disease, are pregnant, or are malnourished.

So what should you do? By using good gardening and harvesting practices, you can help to reduce potential food safety risks from the food you grow.

When planning your garden…

Locate vegetable gardens away from manure piles, garbage cans, septic systems, run-off from any potential sources of contamination, and areas where wildlife, farm animals, or pets roam. Test soil for contaminants, particularly lead, prior to planting. If lead levels are greater than 100 ppm, precautions should be taken as outlined in the document, Soil Lead Interpretation Sheet, available from the University of Connecticut Soil Laboratory at 860-486-4274. Do you want to use compost? To be safe for gardening, your compost must reach a temperature of at least 130°F. Check the temperature with a compost thermometer. Don’t use untreated manure in a garden that feeds a community group, school or neighborhood.

vegetablesWhile your garden is growing…

Know your water source and its potential for contamination. Irrigate using water from an approved public water system. You can be sure that water from a municipal or public water system is safe and potable (drinkable). However, water from lakes, ponds, rivers and streams can be polluted by human sewage or animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farm fields, or chemicals from industry and is more risky. Even water from a rain barrel can be contaminated – best to save that for non-edible plants. If well water is used, be sure to test it at least annually to ensure its safety. During the gardening season, keep cats, dogs and other pets out of the garden, as animal waste can be a source of bacteria, parasites and viruses. Curtail nesting and hiding places for rats and mice by minimizing vegetation at the edges of your fruit and vegetable garden. Fencing or noise deterrents may help discourage other animals.

During harvest time…

People who are sick, particularly with vomiting or diarrhea should not work in the garden or harvest produce. Everyone should wash their hands with soap and water before and after harvesting fresh produce. Do you have hand-washing facilities nearby? Harvest into clean, food-grade containers. Food-grade containers are made from materials designed specifically to safely hold food. Garbage bags, trash cans, and any containers that originally held chemicals such as household cleaners or pesticides are not food-grade. If children are helping out, be sure they are supervised by adults who understand safe harvesting practices. It is best not to let them eat fresh picked food before it is washed. If tools are used for harvesting (knives, clippers), make sure that they are cleaned regularly and designated only for garden use.

Once harvested…

If you choose to wash fruits and vegetables before storing, be sure to dry them thoroughly with a clean paper towel. (NEVER wash berries until you are ready to eat them). If you choose to store without washing, shake, rub or brush off any garden dirt with a paper towel or soft brush while still outside. Store unwashed produce in plastic bags or containers. Keep fruit and vegetable bins clean.

When washing produce fresh from the warm outdoors, the rinse water should not be more than 10 degrees colder than the produce. If you are washing refrigerated produce, use cold water. Fresh fruits and vegetables needing refrigeration can be stored below 41° F. Those that are safe to store at room temperature (onions, potatoes, whole, uncut tomatoes) should be in a cool, dry, pest-free, well-ventilated area separate from household chemicals.

For more information about safe produce gardening and food handling, contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center at 877-486-6271 or www.ladybug.uconn.edu or visit www.foodsafety.uconn.edu.

Get Your Money’s Worth in Food

By Sherry Gray – Extension Instructor Nutrition Educator, EFNEP Supervisor Foods & Nutrition

applesIn many urban and very rural communities, there are fewer supermarket choices making it even more difficult to buy nutritious foods at affordable prices. Food prices have been going up dramatically over the past few years, making it hard for anyone to shop on a budget at the grocery store. It is particularly hard for people on limited budgets, such as the elderly and low income families, who have less access to affordable and accessible food. Even chain supermarkets now have had price increases that have made food less affordable.

Shop For A Healthy Diet & A Healthy Budget

Produce, dairy products, grains and meat products have all increased in price within the past two to three years. So what can people do to stay within their food budget and still eat a healthy, nutritious diet?

  • Buy locally grown food from a farmers market or farm stand.
    Farmers markets are now even in urban areas so they have become more accessible to everyone.

Look for locally grown, fresher produce at farmers markets.

Many even accept SNAP and WIC at some of the farmers markets. Produce is generally fresher and it supports local farmers as well as your community.

  • Shop around for the best prices.
    If you have transportation, shop around to find the best prices for food at supermarkets. Use coupons and take advantage of weekly sales to cut food costs. Try to shop only once a week and go with a predetermined list to cut down on impulse buys.
  • Learn to cook.
    You save money and eat healthier when you are able to prepare meals at home. Cooking and preparing food at home also cuts down on eating out at restaurants which saves more money. You have much more control of your diet when you prepare it yourself.
  • Organize a community food pantry!
    If people in your neighborhood are on very limited budgets, you can organize a food pantry. You can partner with a local food pantry or congregation to host a food pantry that offers healthier food options.
  • Start a community garden or community supported agriculture (CSA).
    This is a great way to develop a community garden where families can get access to affordable produce during the growing months.
  • Buying less processed foods and cooking more at home will not only save you money, but will improve the nutritional quality of your diet. As food prices continue to rise, look for ways to cut food costs and keep to simple, unprocessed foods to keep within a budget.