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They may be considered the healthy option but fruit and vegetables could cause serious illnesses unless properly cleaned before being stored and consumed, a leading expert warned.
The dangers of germ-riddled food and simple remedies to prevent problems were outlined by food safety specialist Basil Al Muskati during an online event organised by National Initiative for Agricultural Development (NIAD) on its Instagram account.
“Fruits and vegetables are very important for people to consume but if they contain bacteria they can be harmful,” he said. “Many millions fall ill and annually there are 420 deaths worldwide from contaminated fruits or vegetables that are consumed without being washed properly.”
Most people are aware of the importance of handling meat safely, but many wrongly consider the risk of food poisoning from vegetables to be low. Some nasty strains of E. coli, for example, stuck on the soil of potatoes, can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.
Bacteria can get onto fruit and vegetables in several ways. They may be present in water used for irrigation, organic fertilisers, or droppings from birds and other animals that go into fields.
People who are vulnerable to infection, such as pregnant women, the elderly or anyone with a weakened immune system, should follow the guidelines on preparation and good hygiene carefully.
Other dangers include pesticides and chemicals which are often used in food production to keep fruit and veg safe from insects and pests. However, the residue of these pesticides and chemicals stay on the produce, which can be life-threatening at times.
High levels of chemicals and pesticides pose a threat to human health by damaging the nervous and reproductive systems, disrupting the immune system, and even leading to cancer in some cases. The risk factors make it necessary to wash vegetables in the right way to stay safe.
Basil offered some useful tips, in addition to the golden rule of people washing their hands properly before and after handling food.
“They can also clean the fruits and vegetables with vinegar and hot water,” he suggested. “Baking powder can also be used to clean them before being consumed. Cleaning them thoroughly will help kill any bacteria.
“I also suggest that people store their fruit and vegetables at the top part of the fridge and place raw food at the bottom to avoid any risk of cross-contamination.”
He urged shoppers to also be careful when buying in stores and to always look out for signs of scratch marks or items appearing to be turning rotten.
However, there’s no need to worry about the spread of Covid-19. “People should not be afraid of the coronavirus spreading through consuming fruits and vegetables,” assured Basil. “This is impossible.”
There is no evidence to date of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses being transmitted via food or food packaging. Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply.