A Scary Food Danger You’d Never Suspect

You’re supposed to eat five a day for good health, but beware! There could be danger in your salad bowl and fruit cup.

Illnesses linked to fresh produce are on the rise. Fruits and vegetables are now responsible for more large-scale outbreaks of food-borne illnesses than meat, poultry and eggs, reports The Wall Street Journal. Fully 12 percent of food-borne illnesses are caused by fruits and vegetables, up from 1 percent in the 1970s.

Why is lettuce more dangerous than hamburger? There are several reasons, including centralization of produce distribution, an increase in produce imports and the popularity of pre-chopped, ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables. In November 2005, 250,000 bags of Dole packaged salads were recalled due to E. coli bacteria, while in 2003, green onions imported from Mexico are thought to have caused the largest hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history in which 500 people were sickened and three died.

The fruits and veggies causing the most problems are:

* Tomatoes
* Melons, especially cantaloupes
* Lettuce
* Sprouts
* Green onions

How do fruits and vegetables become tainted? It’s tough to trace the specific origin, but it is known that once the protective skin is broken, it’s easier for bacteria to enter, reports The Wall Street Journal. In the case of tomatoes, the bacteria can penetrate through the stem or cracks in the skin. Bacteria from irrigation water, manure or wildlife can seep through the cracks and crevices of a cantaloupe rind.

What can you do to protect yourself and your family? The Partnership for Food Safety Education offers these tips:

* Refrigerate all cut, peeled or cooked fresh fruits and vegetables within two hours of purchasing.
* Before and after preparing food, use hot water and soap to clean cutting boards, peelers and other surfaces and utensils that touch fruits and vegetables.
* Do not use the same cutting board for fruits and vegetables and for meat without cleaning with hot water and soap before and after food preparation.
* Cook or throw away fruits or vegetables that have touched raw meat, poultry, seafood or their juices.
* Remove and throw away bruised or damaged portions of fruits and vegetables when preparing to cook them or before eating them raw.