Don’t be so afraid of that burger. While lettuce and other leafy greens are the picture of good-for-your-family eats, they’re also the largest source of foodborne illness in the United States. About 2.2 million people get sick with diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain each year thanks to consuming contaminated leafy veggies. While pathogens such as E. coli, listeria, and salmonella can taint greens by way of cattle farm runoff and dirty water, the most common culprit is norovirus, which often contaminates food through unwashed workers’ hands. We spoke to Rachel Begun, R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who offered these tips for keeping greens clean:
1. Keep cool
A teeny, tiny bit of bacteria is usually not going to make your family sick. It’s when it multiplies that it becomes a problem. “Anywhere between 40°F to 140°F is the danger zone for bacteria to grow on food, so store your leafy greens in a refrigerator set below 40°F,” says Begun. Fridge thermometers can be wonky, so use a portable oven thermometer to test the temp of the refrigerator.
Wash produce with cool running water right before you eat it, using a scrubbing brush on firm-skinned produce. Dry with a clean towel, cut away any damaged or bruised bits, and remove the outer leaves of leafy greens.
Keep your fruits and veggies far away from meat in your fridge to reduce cross-contamination risk. “And it’s really important to use different cutting boards for produce vs. meat and seafood,” says Begun.
4. Wash up
You’ve heard it before and we’ll say it again: Wash your and your kids’ hands often. This is one of your best defenses against illnesses, even food-borne ones. Properly scrubbing hands for just 20 seconds in warm soapy water can help combat food poisoning.
5. Stay up on the news
“While all of these steps are important, there are no safety guarantees, especially if foods were contaminated before they got to you,” says Begun. “If you know of a food recall or there is a potential contamination, it’s always best to throw it out.”