There’s currently an outbreak of salmonella tearing through a number of states in the U.S. and it’s raising the question of how safe it is to eat pre-cut fruit and vegetables.
The culprit is pre-cut melon — cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew — that was sold in stores like Costco, Walmart and Whole Foods, among other retailers.
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But this isn’t an exclusive or isolated scenario. The fact is, eating fruit and vegetables that were pre-cut in a processing facility opens you up to a variety of illnesses, including salmonella, listeria and E. coli.
“The problem with processed produce is that much like when you get a scratch on your skin, once it’s been cut, it loses a layer of protection and is exposed to [possible contamination],” says Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph. “Melons, in particular, are an extreme example because their flesh is the best growth medium for salmonella.”
That’s because melons are grown in the ground, so they’re already exposed to a number of possible pathogens that can easily be transferred to the flesh of the fruit when you cut through it. Cantaloupes, in particular, pose a risk because of their mesh-like skin that can accumulate and hang on to a number of things.
“Even if you decide to go organic and grow produce with the use of manure, you’ll get pathogens on the rind and salmonella survives a long time in that state.”
Warriner points out that when it’s time to cut the fruit, it’s easy to transfer the contaminants to the flesh.
“Once the contamination is inside the fruit, it’s an element of time because salmonella can double every 30 minutes.”
He says the best thing to do is to wash and cut your own produce at home as often as possible. When it comes to melons, use a scrub brush on the skin under running water to get all the contaminants off. And if you’re dicing or slicing the fruit, either eat it immediately or refrigerate it, since salmonella can’t grow below 10 degrees C.
“The other thing to consider is the contamination that you could be getting from your own kitchen sink,” he says. “People wash all kinds of things in there.”
Aside from ensuring that your kitchen sink is clean (if not actually disinfected), Warriner suggests always washing produce under running water and never in a sink full of sitting water. Once done, if you’re going to refrigerate it, dry it completely since excess moisture can also invite pathogen production.
According to Statistics Canada, salmonella is responsible for five per cent of yearly foodborne illnesses in the country, 24 per cent of which result in hospitalization and 16 per cent in death.
Symptoms include chills, fever, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps and sudden headache, and can appear within six to 72 hours after exposure. Most people will feel better within four to seven days after contracting the illness.
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