Produce Precautions

Print this page Bookmark and Share

It used to be that you just had to worry about convincing kids to eat the fruits and vegetables they need to grow healthy and strong. But reports about outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella remind us of another concern — making sure fresh produce is safe to eat.

Even with the risk of foodborne illnesses, it's important for kids to eat fruits and vegetables every day to get essential vitamins and nutrients. For example, fruits like oranges provide vitamin C, which helps heal cuts and wounds. Vegetables like broccoli contain dietary fiber, which can help keep cholesterol down and bowel movements regular.

The good news is that it's easy to make sure that the produce you buy and prepare is safe.

From the Store to Your Refrigerator

Regardless of the variety of produce you pick — whether it's bagged or loose, organic or traditionally grown — there's always going to be some chance, however small, that harmful bacteria may have gotten on the food. It can happen anywhere between the fields and your kitchen, during picking, transporting, or packaging.

The safeguards you can take begin when you're selecting produce at the store or produce stand. Be sure to inspect fruits and vegetables before you buy them, and avoid any with visible cuts or broken skin where bacteria could enter.

Also keep these things in mind:

  • With prepared produce, such as bagged salad, select only items that are stored on ice or refrigerated. Be sure to check the best-used-by date.
  • If your drive home is longer than an hour, consider bringing a cooler or insulated bag in the car to keep any pre-bagged and pre-cut produce fresh.
  • At the grocery store, separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from produce and other foods in your shopping cart and grocery bags.

You've probably seen the term "Certified Organic" on USDA labels indicating that a product was grown or made without pesticides, synthetic ingredients, or bioengineering. However, bacterial contamination is possible whether the produce is certified organic or conventionally grown.

Refrigerating and Freezing

To safely store produce, make sure your refrigerator and freezer are cold enough to keep it fresh and prevent any bacteria in it from thriving. Keep your refrigerator set between 32ºF (0ºC) and 40ºF (5ºC) and your freezer to 0ºF (-18ºC) or lower. If they don't have thermostats, consider buying one for each.

Properly Preparing Produce

When you prepare fresh produce, these steps will help ensure that it's safe to eat:

  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the bathroom and before preparing or eating food.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from produce and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Wash utensils and surfaces with hot, soapy water before and after using them in food preparation.
  • Scrub all fruits and vegetables with plain water (even if you plan to peel them) to remove any pesticide residue or dirt that could contain bacteria.
  • Wash melons, particularly cantaloupes and watermelons, before eating to avoid carrying bacteria from the rind to the knife to the inside of the fruit.
  • Many types of bagged lettuce are pre-washed (the packaging will say if it is). Even though the produce has been washed before bagging, you still should wash it again right before you eat it.
  • Dry produce with a paper towel or clean towel to help reduce bacteria.
  • Discard the outer leaves of leafy greens, such as spinach or lettuce.
  • Refrigerate all cut and peeled produce.
  • Thoroughly wash cutting boards with hot, soapy water after each use. Consider using separate boards for meat and produce. Replace worn plastic or wooden cutting boards with hard-to-clean grooves that can harbor germs.

Though commercial produce washes are available, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend washing produce with them. Following the recommendations above and washing your hands, dishes, utensils, and the surfaces in your kitchen should work just fine. Periodically sanitizing cutting boards and kitchen surfaces can offer added protection.

Rest assured that while fresh produce, meat, and fish do carry some contamination risk, with the proper precautions you can reduce that risk and enjoy them safely.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2015

Related Resources

OrganizationCenters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.
OrganizationU.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.
OrganizationU.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) The USDA works to enhance the quality of life for people by supporting the production of agriculture.

Related Articles

E. Coli Undercooked burgers and unwashed produce are among the foods that can harbor E. coli bacteria and lead to infection marked by severe diarrhea. Here's how to protect your family.
Yersiniosis Yersiniosis is an uncommon infection caused by the consumption of undercooked meat products, unpasteurized milk, or water contaminated by the bacteria.
Food Safety for Your Family Why is food safety important? And how can you be sure your kitchen and the foods you prepare in it are safe?
Healthy Food Shopping What you put in the grocery cart can affect your child's health and attitude toward nutritious food.
Why Is Hand Washing So Important? Did you know that proper hand washing is the best way to keep from getting sick? Here's how to teach this all-important habit to your kids.
Campylobacter Infections These bacterial infections can cause diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever. Good hand-washing and food safety habits can prevent them.
Food Poisoning Sometimes, germs can get into food and cause food poisoning. Find out what to do if your child gets food poisoning - and how to prevent it.
A to Z: Botulism, Foodborne Learn about bacterial infections, foodborne illnesses, and conditions that affect the nervous system.
What Are Germs? Germs are the microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa that can cause disease. With a little prevention, you can keep harmful germs out of your family's way.
Is It Safe to Eat Food That's Dropped to the Floor? Find out what the experts have to say.
Salmonella Infections Salmonellosis is a foodborne illness caused by the bacteria salmonella. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, and headache.
Listeria Infections Listeriosis, a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with a bacterium, primarily affects pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. Some simple precautions can protect your family from infection.

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995-2016 KidsHealth® All rights reserved.
Images provided by iStock, Getty Images, Corbis, Veer, Science Photo Library, Science Source Images, Shutterstock, and


Upcoming Events

View full event calendarView more events...

Health and Safety

Your child's health and safety is our top priority


The Children's Medical Center of Dayton Dayton Children's
The Right Care for the Right Reasons

One Children's Plaza - Dayton, Ohio - 45404-1815