Expert: Reward outweighs risk when it comes to summer's fresh produce

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With what seems to be an ongoing wave of news reports linking foodborne illness to fresh produce, many consumers are questioning whether it is worth the risk.

But Martin Bucknavage, extension food-safety specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, emphasizes that the benefits far outweigh the risks when it comes to consuming fresh fruits and vegetables.

According to Bucknavage, consumers should appreciate that they can take advantage of the wide selection of fresh produce available during the summer, instead of worrying about the remote possibility of foodborne illness.

"While there have been cases of illnesses reported from time to time that come as a result of contaminated produce," he said, "the risks are quite low when you consider the amount of produce consumed in the United States."

But it is important that consumers take specific steps to help ensure the safety of the produce they purchase, Bucknavage advised.

"Fruits and vegetables must always be washed before being sliced or eaten and must be refrigerated once they have been cut," he said.

Bucknavage also cautioned that certain items, such as cantaloupes, have surfaces that are more difficult to clean, so consumers must be particularly vigilant about washing them.

He explained that it is important to follow these precautions regardless of whether the produce is purchased from a large supermarket or a small farmer's market, but he emphasized that there are many advantages to buying food locally.

"Locally grown produce normally reaches the consumer within a day or so of when it is harvested, so it is fresher," he said. "And it also is harvested closer to the time it ripens, which often results in a better tasting, more nutritious product."

When shopping at farmer's markets, he encourages buyers to follow a few simple guidelines to ensure the safety of their purchases.

"Make sure that produce is fresh looking -- it should have proper color and firmness," Bucknavage said. "Also, avoid fruits and vegetables with decay or excessive bruising, regardless of the price. Damaged produce is more likely to harbor harmful bacteria."

Consumers need to learn about what is grown in their local area and the optimal time for harvest. "People should take advantage of all the different types of fruits and vegetables grown around them," he said. "It is fun to find new recipes that maximize the taste and healthfulness of those items."

Bucknavage noted that freezing and canning can preserve the local bounty for later use. "However, we should never purchase more than we can handle in a day or so," he said. "And it is important to use only approved procedures for canning and freezing, such as those listed on the USDA website."

Don't get discouraged with fresh produce, he urged.

"We get jaded by all the stories we hear on the news, but really, there is minimal risk," Bucknavage said. "Rather, I encourage folks to try all types of local fresh fruits and vegetables and not worry about the possibility of contracting foodborne illness."
 

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Last Updated July 19, 2012