Every piece of fresh produce you buy may be the unwitting carrier of bacteria. Fruits and vegetables pick up microorganisms from the soil and water or become contaminated during distribution, processing and even in your home. Many different types of bacteria are found on produce, but three strains are encountered most often. Don't let the threat of bacteria stop you from gaining the nutritional benefits of fruits and vegetables. Just reduce the risk through proper storage and cleaning.
Bacteria in the Environment
Farming practices have a big impact on the type and amount of bacteria living in the soil and water. If you grow your own fruits and vegetables, you can reduce bacteria by keeping animals out of the garden, cleaning equipment and using only commercially processed, bacteria-free manure. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists seven types of bacteria associated with fresh fruits and vegetables, but listeria, Escherichia coli and salmonella are responsible for most illnesses linked to produce, according to a report in the January 2013 issue of the journal “Applied and Environmental Microbiology.”
Salmonella is the second most common cause of foodborne illness in the United States, but that includes all sources, not just from produce. While it can contaminate any raw fruit or vegetable, it’s often associated with alfalfa sprouts and melons. Most adults who become sick from salmonella get better within a week, but it can cause serious problems in infants, older adults and people with chronic medical conditions. Salmonella is killed by cooking or pasteurization, but when you're munching on fresh produce, you'll have to rely on thorough cleaning.
Like the other types of bacteria, Escherichia coli, or E. coli, spreads to produce from contaminated feces in the environment. Many strains are not harmful, such as the beneficial E. coli that thrive in your gut and help fight bad bacteria. But some types of E. coli produce large amounts of toxins, which may make you sick and can lead to serious infections. Leafy greens and sprouts are most often associated with E. coli, according to the "Nutrition Action Healthletter."
Listeria has been found in everything from decaying vegetation and animals to food processing facilities and home refrigerators. It causes a disease called listeriosis, which is serious in pregnant women, people with weak immune systems and the elderly. Outbreaks of listeriosis have been linked to raw vegetables and sprouts. Listeria is different from other bacteria because it can grow inside a refrigerator, but it is killed by cooking.
Keep Yourself Safe
Buy only the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables that you can eat within a few days. This lowers the chance of produce going bad, which creates an opportunity for bacteria to grow. Don’t wash produce before storing it in the refrigerator because the moisture promotes bacterial growth. When you’re ready to eat the produce, cut out any bruised or damaged spots, then rinse under cold running water while rubbing with your hands to loosen dirt. You can also use a brush on produce with a tough skin. Be sure to wash fruits and vegetables before you peel or cut them.