WASHINGTON - Food-borne illnesses increase in the summer months and typically peak in July. Health officials say that the seasonality reflects a combination of factors: increased consumption of produce that may not have been washed, substandard food storage practices and higher temperatures in which many bacteria thrive. The chances of contracting an illness from fresh produce can be greatly reduced by simple measures. Among them:
Use cool running water to wash fruits and vegetables. Running water has an abrasive effect that soaking does not and may remove harmful germs from the crevices of berries. Discard the outer leaves of lettuce, which are more likely to harbor dirt or bacteria. Peel carrots, don't just scrub them.
Wash the outside of melons before cutting them. Some cases of salmonella have been traced to unwashed cantaloupe rind that was spread to the fruit when the melon was cut.
Promptly refrigerate cut produce. Even though fresh fruits and vegetables are far less likely than cheese or meat to become a breeding ground for harmful organisms, proper storage is important.
When in doubt, don't eat it. If the skin of a fruit or vegetable is broken, throw it out. Organisms may have invaded the interior, beyond the reach of washing.
Wash pre-packaged salad mix and vegetables. It is hard to know how well or if they have been washed. The mesclun lettuce that caused an outbreak of cyclosporiasis in Florida last spring was not washed by the Tallahassee restaurant that served it, Florida health officials said, because workers thought the salad mix had been washed.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Florida Dept. of Health, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association
The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and the Food Marketing Institute offer these guidelines on how long food will last. Unless otherwise indicated, list reflects refrigerator-storage time after product has been opened. Food kept longer than recommended times may be usable, but of inferior quality.
Apples - 1 month. Do not wash before storing as moisture encourages spoilage. Store in crisper or moisture-resistant bags or wrap.
Apricots, avocados, bananas, melons, nectarines, peaches, pears - 5 days
Berries, cherries - 3 days
Citrus fruit - 2 weeks
Grapes, plums - 5 days
Pineapple - 2 days
Asparagus - 3 days
Beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes, turnips - 2 weeks. Remove any leafy tops before refrigerating.
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green onions, zucchini - 5 days
Cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, peppers, tomatoes - 1 week. If necessary, open tomatoes at room temperature away from light before refrigerating.
Corn - 1 day - leave in husk.
Lettuce, spinach, all leafy greens - 5 days. Rinse, drain before refrigerating.
Lima beans, peas - 5 days. Leave in shell.
(time limits reflect pantry storage)
Nuts - 4-6 months
Flour cake, all-purpose - 1 year
Olives - 12-18 months unopened; 2 weeks opened
Pickles 12 months unopened; 1-2 months opened
Peanut butter - 6-9 months unopened; 2-3 months opened