While paper products remain harder to find than a Twinkie in “Zombieland,” do not despair. Just push your cart over to the fresh produce department, knowing that everything there is still good for you, widely available, and safe to eat.
I repeat: safe to eat.
The best “news” - in a time when we all need some hope and happiness - is that there is no evidence of food or food packaging being linked to transmission of COVID-19, which is not a food-borne illness and is not known to be transmitted via food.
Before diving into other facts and best practices, I have to give all credit to Lauren Ferguson and Jason Caslow of Sprouthouse Agency (Charleston) for contacting me and suggesting this valuable topic as this week’s ‘Dine Savannah’ column.
Ferguson has been working with the teams behind the international Produce Marketing Association “to ensure consumers are well-armed with positive practices and facts about produce during this time.”
When fear sprouts in society, seeds of untruth are often sown, and consumers may be avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables during the pandemic due to a conflation of misinformation.
Sure, we all need another roll of toilet paper, but we also need a banana and some asparagus.
I freely and fully admit that the majority of this article comes directly from Dr. Max Teplitski, PMA’s Chief Science Officer, whose sage and scientific words are quoted throughout. The explanations and verification herein are not the happy ramblings of a food columnist. They come from a most reliable expert.
The short version: now is the time to consume fresh produce, and we all can do so safely.
GRAB SOME GRAPES
“How can I make sure that I am not transmitting or picking up germs while shopping?”
Both academic and government research conducted by the CDC and the FDA are consistent in the conclusion that “there is no indication that COVID-19 is acquired as a food-borne illness.” Even if coronavirus had never reared its widespread head, consumers can minimize the risk of introducing any food-borne pathogens and cross-contaminating produce by grabbing a sanitary wipe inside the sliding doors and wiping the handle of your cart or basket. Shop for produce first, put it in plastic bags, and keep it away from raw meats and fish.
Not incidentally, Dr. Teplitski also reviewed the results of more than a thousand studies that looked at the transmission of other respiratory viruses, and the results of these studies concluded that fresh produce or food packaging has not been a vehicle of flu, the common cold, or SARS.
Also separate from COVID-19 concerns, basic food safety practices hold true. When picking out produce, avoid bruised fruits and vegetables; “several studies showed that bruised produce and those with small rot [marks] are more hospitable to human food-borne pathogens.”
SING A SONG
“Do I need to clean produce and its packaging when I get home from the store?”
By now, everyone has heard of the study that revealed that the coronavirus can survive on plastic for a few days, though “it is important to understand that that study modeled a worst-case scenario: viral particles were misted uniformly onto surfaces and then incubated under very uniform conditions.”
That means that “the likelihood of COVID-19 being present in such high numbers in a uniform manner is negligible.” At the same time, adopting ‘a risk-based approach’ is essential; if someone in the household is sick, “it is imperative to sanitize all surfaces with cleaning sprays known to kill viruses.”
Just as you sing the chorus of “Raspberry Beret” while washing your hands right after you return from the grocery store or right before you eat, follow the FDA’s guidelines for how to wash and to store produce properly. Once your hands are clean and you are ready to eat the berries, sing a shorter tune while you rinse them off under warm running water, either leaving them in their clam shells or putting them a clean container.
If peeling is required, wash the fruit and veg before you peel and then wipe dry with a clean paper towel. Produce labeled ‘ready-to-eat’, such as bagged greens and salad mixes, have been triple-washed and treated with food-grade sanitizers prior to packaging and do not need any further cleaning at home.
Again, wash produce only immediately before consumption; any items that are not going to be eaten within two hours should go in the fridge.
HOW CLEAN IS CLEAN?
“What type of cleanser should I use on produce?”
Dr. Teplitski cited “a number of peer-reviewed studies in which the removal of viruses from fresh produce was compared using running water and various disinfectants. The results of these studies are consistent: there is no statistically significant difference in the removal of viral particles from produce surfaces using running water and scrubbing versus using food-grade surfactants (detergents).”
Accordingly, neither the U.S. FDA nor the CDC recommends using anything other than warm water to clean produce and “especially advises consumers not to use hand soap or dishwashing detergents.”
The various ‘produce washes’ that are on the market, and which are probably making hay right now, are mostly effective in removing soil and some pesticide residues but can also shorten the storage life of fruits,” while having no effect on any food-borne viral strains.
And do not even dare go for the Clorox. Come on. It’s food, friends.
PARING DOWN THE SHOPPING TRIPS
“What is the best shelf-stable produce I can buy to cut back on trips to the store?”
“Nutritional properties and the pure joy of eating fresh fruits and vegetables cannot compare to those of canned or frozen produce,” writes Dr. Teplitski. Amen, Doctor.
My wife and I are doing just fine hitting the grocery store every Saturday morning, though we shop for just the two of us, which admittedly means a lighter weekly load. I freeze a bunch of bananas to use in my daily smoothie, made with O.J., frozen mangoes and pineapples, and some vanilla yogurt. We are polishing off a bag of green grapes each week, and my wife has cherry tomatoes and celery at every lunch.
We have enjoyed a vegetable - spinach salad with radishes and mushrooms, braised-and-glazed carrots, blanched pak choi, roasted Brussels sprouts, grilled zucchini - with each dinner. Whether we have shopped at Whole Foods, Kroger, or Publix, none of our favorite fruit and veg have been hard to find, and everything we have bought has lasted until we ate it.
If you want to ‘load up’ on stuff that lasts, generally speaking, hard-skinned squashes, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes will keep for months in a cool, dry place. If anyone around here has a basement, apples, all citrus fruits, cabbages, carrots, beets, white potatoes, and watermelons will store pretty well in a cool climate.
In the fridge, most leafy greens can keep for as long as two weeks, while Napa cabbage, Asian Brassicas, and cauliflower will keep for a couple of months. Keep those firm avocados in the crisper for a couple of weeks and pull them out to ripen at room temperature the day before you smash them.
EAT WHAT MAKES SENSE
“What should I eat during this pandemic to support health and to reduce the risk of virus transmission?”
No news here: fresh fruits and vegetables are a part of a healthy diet, no matter what crisis is circling the globe. Add to that regular physical activity and sleep to maintain overall health for everyone, including those with chronic illnesses.
That being true, Dr. Teplitski advises that “eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes is more important than ever before” and cites studies from the University of Florida showing that “bioactive molecules from garlic and shiitake mushrooms have a positive effective on immunological markers” and that “aged garlic and polyphenols from cranberries alleviated symptoms of colds and influenza.”
Other immunity boosters include tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables, oranges and orange juice, strawberries, and pomegranates.
Clinical data gathered from around the world contends that “individuals who have underlying chronic medical conditions have an increased risk of becoming more seriously ill.” All the same, food is not a panacea; “rather, regularly eating a diverse diet composed of fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables, should be a part of a healthy lifestyle, especially at this time.”
HAVE FAITH IN THE PRODUCE PURVEYORS
Once again, there has not been a documented case of COVID-19 caused by the consumption of fresh fruits or vegetables - or any foods sold or consumed through commercial routes even. The coronavirus can persist on surfaces, which is why we are racing each other to Target to clean out the latest shipment of sanitizer products.
The “uniform contamination” that is so worrisome may occur in the hospital setting but truly does not happen in the food production environment.
Dr. Teplitski reminds all of us who have not been to a food-production facility in the last five years that “all workers along the conveyor belt wear gloves and masks, food-contact surfaces are routinely sanitized with disinfectants, and real measures are in place to minimize the risk of any food-borne illness.”
“This is what our industry has been doing since way before this pandemic,” he explains.
COVID-19 or not, grocery stores that regularly promote food safety are the ones whose employees already observe food safety protocols. If fresh food retailers continue to implement measures that are in their SOPs - “sanitizing floors and displays, preventing cross-contamination, enforcing employees hygienic behaviors, and keeping employees who are unwell from the stores until after they recover” - risks of any food-borne illnesses can be eliminated from our retail.
For the next several weeks, heading out to the stores is going to be inherently stressful. I get it. Folks are scared and are inexplicably filling carts with bottled water and canned yams.
As it always has been and should be, food needs to be fun, a source of enjoyment in our every day. If the t.p. shelf is empty, buy a bag of potatoes and a bunch of broccoli.
Don’t lick any door knobs. Eat an orange. Wash it first.