OHIO | Chow Line: Fresh produce and COVID-19

Is it safe to buy and eat fresh fruits and vegetables in light of the coronavirus pandemic? Can I get COVID-19 from eating fresh fruits such as apples?

Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is a great choice that promotes a healthy diet, so it’s important that you don’t let fears of the coronavirus pandemic prevent you from eating these healthy foods. In fact, they provide considerable nutritional benefits that help maintain personal health and can enhance the ability to fight off infections. As such, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest that you should fill half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables at each meal.

With that in mind, it’s important to know that food safety experts consider the risk of acquiring COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, through handling fresh produce extremely low. In fact, there is no evidence at this time that COVID-19 can be transmitted through consumption of contaminated foods, said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“COVID-19 is not a foodborne disease,” she said. “Rather, COVID-19 transmits person-to-person through droplets that are produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. The virus is most often transferred to another individual when droplets directly reach their nose, mouth, or eyes, or through close contact such as a handshake.

“The virus can also transmit when a person touches an object or surface with the virus on it and then touches their mouth or eyes before washing their hands.”

But, because fruits and vegetables can sometimes harbor harmful bacteria, it is important that you rinse all produce under running water before preparing or eating it. That includes fresh produce that was purchased from a grocery store, a farmers market, or even grown at home.

And, some fruits and vegetables that have skin need to be rinsed under running water before preparing or eating them, even if you do not plan to eat the skin.

For example, cantaloupe skin has nooks and crannies that can house dirt particles. You should give cantaloupes a good rinse and scrub them with a clean brush before you cut through them with a knife. That is because peeling or cutting unwashed produce can transfer dirt or other contaminates from the surface of the produce to the portion of the fruit or vegetable you plan to eat.

In fact, firm produce such as melons, apples, and cucumbers should be scrubbed with a clean produce brush before peeling or cutting into them. They should then be dried off with a clean paper towel or cloth to further reduce harmful bacteria that might be present on the skin, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

“However, you should never use soap, a bleach solution, or other sanitizers to wash produce,” Ilic said. “Detergents and bleach solutions are not meant to be consumed or used on food. Using them to wash your fresh produce can be dangerous and lead to other health issues.”

Here are some other recommendations from Ilic:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after food preparation.
  • Rinse produce thoroughly under running water before eating, cutting, or cooking it, whether it’s grown at home or purchased from a grocery store or farmers market, and whether it’s grown conventionally or organically.
  • Promptly refrigerate prepackaged lettuce and other produce labeled “ready to eat.” Although the washing during processing removes soil particles and does a good job minimizing the risk of foodborne pathogens, it doesn’t hurt to give it an extra rinse just before eating it.
  • Carefully handle produce with a rind, such as cantaloupe and watermelon. Scrub it with a clean produce brush under running water before being cut into it. If you laid it on a cutting board or other surface before washing it, clean and sanitize the surface before cutting into the fruit to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
  • When preparing fruits and vegetables, cut away any damaged or bruised areas because bacteria that cause illness can thrive in those places. Immediately refrigerate any fresh-cut items such as salad or fruit for best quality and food safety.
  • Vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce, and leafy kale should be rinsed under cold water just before you intend to eat them. However, don’t wash berries before putting them in the fridge, because that will increase moisture and accelerate growth of spoilage bacteria and molds.

It is important to note that most fresh produce is eaten uncooked and there is no way to kill any harmful bacteria that might be present, Ilic said.

“This is where proper food safety handling comes into play,” she said. “To lessen your chance for contracting foodborne illness, it is important that you not only wash fresh produce before preparing or eating it, but you should also wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation.”

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

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