Summer is finally here and if you are like me, one of your favorite things to do is to visit, support and enjoy the offerings of local farmers' markets. Each week there are more choices of wonderful fresh, locally grown products in addition to the crafts, baked goods and other items being offered.
A few weeks ago I received a call from a client inquiring about the safety of items being offered at farmers' markets. After having some discussion with personnel at our local Health Department, we concluded that it might be helpful to share some information about purchase, and use of fresh produce, wherever it might be obtained.
With the evolution of the way that much of our produce is displayed and marketed in today's supermarkets, it is understandable that some people may be confused about how to handle, store or prepare all fresh produce items. For some of us buying 'baby carrots' or pre-washed salad greens in a bag for salad is a relatively new thing, while others may not remember a time when these items were not 'the norm'.
Food today is sold in a wide array of formats from straight out of the garden to 'ready to eat'. However, most kinds of produce, even though they can be eaten raw and don't require cooking aren't truly 'ready to eat'. An exception would be 'baby carrots' which are washed and packaged and sold ready to eat.
In general, fresh produce should be cleaned, washed and possibly even scrubbed before being prepared or consumed raw, whether it comes from your own garden, a farmer's market or the grocery store.
Although most people know animal products must be handled carefully to prevent spoilage, many don't realize that fruits and vegetables can also be the culprits in outbreaks of foodborne illness. Last year the United States had several large outbreaks of foodborne illness caused by contaminated fruits and vegetables -- including spinach, tomatoes and peppers.
Produce can be contaminated in many ways. During the growing phase, fruits and veggies may be contaminated by soil, water or the fertilizer. After produce is harvested, it often passes through many hands, which can increase the contamination risk.
Contamination can also occur after food is purchased and taken home or during food prep or due to inadequate storage. It is truly up to each of us as consumers to be knowledgeable enough to make good choices when selecting produce that is in good condition and then to store and handle it properly.
Farmers' markets are not permitted to sell pre-cut produce. Items such as watermelon slices and bags of cut lettuce can be sold at supermarkets but must be covered and kept refrigerated or on ice. These items should continue to be refrigerated when taken home.
Additional tips for cleaning and caring for fruits and vegetables:
* Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.
* Cut away any damaged or bruised areas before preparing and eating.
* Gently rub produce while holding under plain running water (There's no need to use soap or a produce wash.)
* Wash produce before you peel or cut it so dirt and bacteria aren't transferred from the knife blade onto the fruit or veggie.
* Use a vegetable brush to scrub firm produce, such as potatoes, melons and cucumbers.
* Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.
* Throw away the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.
Perishable produce should be stored in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or below. Any fruit or vegetable should be refrigerated after it has been cut or peeled.
We know that fruits and vegetables are important for a healthy diet and most of us would do well to consume more. Remember to follow basic food safety precautions so you can enjoy the wonderful bounty of our local food producers but be sure to do so safely.
For more information about selection, preparation or storage of fresh produce or other questions pertaining to food safety, call the Putnam County Office of the Purdue Extension Service at 653-8411.
Visit our website at www.extension.purdue.edu/putnam or you can contact the local Purdue Extension Office by calling 653-8411 for more information regarding this week's column topic or to RSVP for upcoming events.
It is always best to call first to assure items are ready when you arrive and to RSVP for programs. While many publications are free, some do have a fee. All times listed are Eastern Time
July 22-30 -- Putnam County Fair (programs at Extension Office/local businesses)
July 27 -- Ladies Day at the Fair
July 28 -- Enters Bakers' Best Contest 9-11 a.m.; Open judging at 12:30 p.m.; Awards and Auction at 7 p.m.
July 29 -- Awards Program and Champion and Res. Champion pictures taken at 7 p.m.
August 1 -- Area V 4-H Tractor Contest, Fairgrounds, 9 a.m.
August 2 -- National Night Out, Robe Ann Park, 6 p.m.
August 5-21 -- Indiana State Fair
August 16 -- Master Gardner Classes to start Fairgrounds 6-9 p.m.