Fruit, vegetable safety during the holidays

GLENN ELLIS | 12/11/2018, 1:04 p.m.
Contaminated food is an extremely common problem. The Center for Disease Control estimates that germs in food make 48 million ...
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Strategies for Well-Being

Contaminated food is an extremely common problem. The Center for Disease Control estimates that germs in food make 48 million Americans sick every year – that’s 1 out of 6 people. About 128,000 are made sick enough to be hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

Year to date, there have been 22 outbreaks investigated by the CDC, including the dangerous E. coli outbreak currently linked to romaine lettuce. It’s the highest number of total investigations compared to the past 12 years.

The FDA and the CDC have cautioned people not to eat romaine lettuce while they investigate the outbreak. It’s very similar to an outbreak of E. coli that killed one person and made at least 25 people ill last year that was traced to leafy green vegetables but not to romaine lettuce specifically.

This is the second outbreak of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce this year. An outbreak this past spring killed five people and made 210 sick in 36 states. It was eventually traced to contaminated canal water in a farming area in Yuma, Arizona.

Although California may be the source of romaine lettuce blamed in an outbreak of E. coli infections that has made 32 people sick in 11 states and Canada, the CDC is stressing that we continue to be cautious of romaine lettuce regardless of its origin.

Is romaine somehow riskier than other vegetables and fruits? Not likely.

What is known is where E. coli comes from. Like so many other bacteria that contaminate food, it comes from fecal matter. Wild animals may roam through fields, or irrigation water might flow from nearby pastures or feedlots where livestock is raised. Contamination can be further spread when produce is harvested and passes through machinery to clean, trim, chop and package it. Like many other foods, romaine is often processed and repackaged before it ships out to grocery stores and restaurants.

Eating a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables provides important health benefits, but it’s important that you select and prepare them safely.

Fruits and vegetables add nutrients to your diet that help protect you from heart disease, stroke and some cancers. In addition, choosing vegetables, fruits, nuts and other produce over high-calorie foods can help you manage your weight.

But sometimes raw fruits and vegetables contain harmful germs, such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria, that can make you and your family sick. In the United States, nearly half of foodborne illnesses are caused by germs on fresh produce.

Since fresh fruits and vegetables are not cooked, anything that is left on them after they come into contact with other things will be consumed. This includes microorganisms in organic manure and in the water used for irrigation and initial rinsing, microbes on the hands of the people who pick the produce, the containers and vehicles used to store and transport it, and droppings from birds that fly over the field.

Eating unwashed, raw fruits and vegetables increases your risk of dangerous bacterial infections, including E. coli and salmonella. If you eat fruits without properly washing, there is a higher chance of being affected by various disease-causing microorganisms, which could be causes of food poisoning.