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Fruits, Vegetables, Juice, and Nuts

The substantial increase in the consumption of raw vegetables, fruits, and unpasteurized juices in the last several years has caused a significant increase in foodborne disease. Produce is now available in all seasons of the year because of increasing imports from many foreign countries. Listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium botulinum, and Bacillus cereus are naturally found in the soil and can readily contaminate produce. Salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, Campylobacter jejuni, Vibrio cholerae, Cryptosporidium, parasites, and viruses are frequently found on fresh produce because of manure, contaminated irrigation water, contaminated processing water, mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, rodents, and contaminated human hands or bodies. A combination of sick people, healthy carriers of disease, lower sanitation standards locally, nationally, or internationally, and high mobility among seasonal workers helps spread a large variety of foodborne diseases.

Fruits and vegetables are usually sold fresh, receive minimal care, and may become contaminated in the fields during the growing season, during harvesting, during processing, and during preparation or use. Besides surface contamination, microorganisms may enter through the stem scar and breaks in the skin of the fruits or vegetables. The cutting of the products releases plant cellular fluids which may act as an excellent medium for the growth of microorganisms. The contaminants may be caused by microorganisms or agricultural and other chemicals. Sources of contamination may be in the air, soil, water, from sewage, from crops being flooded, from insects, rodents, birds, and other animals, and through the harvesting and transportation equipment as well as the people working in the fields. The contamination may occur in all parts of the produce system. This is compounded by potential contamination from water used in processing and during preparation from slicing, chopping, or shredding, which may readily spread the microorganisms from the equipment or simply through the mechanism of producing smaller pieces of the product and presenting larger surface areas for the growth of microorganisms. The fruits and vegetables may become contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, yeasts and molds, and other organisms. The fruits or vegetables may also become contaminated by chemicals in the air, soil, or water. The chemical contaminants may be spread throughout the products through the processing procedures. (See endnote 20.)

Seeds either fresh or cooked may contain low levels of pathogens such as Salmonella which may multiply rapidly during the sprouting process. Sprouts are seeds that have just started to grow. They are usually stored longer than the seeds used to grow fruits and vegetables. They are grown in warm, watery, and dark conditions, which is perfect for the growth of microorganisms. They may become exposed in storage as well as during the growth process to dust, contaminated water, animals, and/or people. The microorganisms can exist in or on the sprouts for about a year. The potential for disease caused by Salmonella, etc. is substantial as has been shown by previous outbreaks of disease. Sprouts may be especially a problem if the seeds and the seedlings are consumed raw. (See endnote 27.)

Juice may contain biological, chemical, and physical hazards. It may also be involved in causing allergies through cross-contamination with peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, tree nuts, and wheat. Some acidic juices with a pH of 4.6 or less have been shown to contain E. coli O157:H7, various Salmonella species, and the protozoan parasite Cryptosporidium parvum. These organisms may be found in the intestinal tract of animals, their manure, or feces. Enteric organisms causing most of the foodborne illness outbreaks associated with juice may be found in the low acidic juices with pH greater than 4.6. Juices may be contaminated with viruses from sick farm workers or food handlers and cause outbreaks of foodborne disease.

Chemical hazards may come from the air, soil, and water and may include agricultural chemicals, especially pesticide residues, and other hazardous substances. Of considerable concern is patu- lin, a mycotoxin produced by fungi commonly found on improperly stored or damaged apples. Lead contamination of produce, such as lead arsenate from past use in agricultural settings, may come from contaminated soil, equipment, and vehicles that used leaded gasoline. Tin, which is frequently used as a coating in metal cans which are not lacquered, may leach into juice.

Physical hazards may include glass fragments from broken containers and metal fragments from cutting equipment. Other contaminants may be dirt, etc. (See endnote 24.)

Foodborne illness may be caused by Salmonella in low moisture products such as nuts or peanut butter made from the nuts. Outbreaks of disease have also been traced to chocolate, infant cereals, milk powder, powdered infant formulas, and other types of snacks and cereals containing nuts or nut products. Chemical or physical hazards may be present caused by contamination and/or adulteration of the products. Of considerable concern is allergen management since so many people have allergic responses to different types of food, especially peanuts. Contamination in all parts of the production system including the farm, through transportation and the shellers, hullers, processors, and manufacturers can lead to foodborne disease or allergic responses. Chemical hazards on nuts may include mycotoxins, antibiotics, pesticides, and sulfites. Physical hazards include all extraneous materials.

Floodwaters which contact the edible portions of crops present a significant biological and chemical hazard and therefore a serious health risk. All flooded foodstuffs must be considered to be contaminated and therefore must not enter the food processing chain. Disposal must be handled in such a manner that it will not contaminate other food crops and will not create land, water, or air pollution problems and not increase the levels of insects and rodents present in the area. (See endnote 26.)

Best Practices in Processing Fruits, Vegetables, Juice, and Nuts (See endnotes 22, 23, 24, 25)

  • • Follow the Best Practices in Processing of Fish and Shellfish shown above for processing of fruits, vegetables, juice, and nuts.
  • • Establish a food safety plan and management program using the HACCP system in a systematic, comprehensive, and thorough manner for each product.
  • • All critical control points must be identified and procedures established and followed in a very strict manner.
  • • Determine the accuracy of thermometers for refrigerators, freezers, and heat processors and frequently check the temperatures of these very significant pieces of equipment.
  • • Consider the potential hazards of environmental contaminants such as agricultural chemicals that may run off into the water as well as runoff from manure piles or other sewage systems.
  • • Inspect all fruits and vegetables throughout the processing stream to determine if there is gross contamination present and make immediate necessary corrections.
  • • Remove from the processing line all damaged or decomposed fruits and vegetables.
  • • Remove and destroy diseased or damaged seeds and sprouts that may be used for human consumption.
  • • Keep seeds that are used for production of sprouts in dry storage areas and in rodent-proof containers.
  • • Treat seeds and sprouts with approved methods using chemicals that will reduce the level of pathogens present. (See endnote 28.)
  • • Test seeds and sprouts for the presence of microorganisms that may cause disease in humans.
  • • Carefully treat and test all process water which will be reused for additional processing to avoid cross-contamination.
  • • Treat all contaminated water before releasing into a body of water.
  • • Use appropriate temperatures of wash water on the fruits and vegetables to produce an appropriately clean product.
  • • Establish a potential allergen control program for all foods but especially for nuts.
  • • Prevent cross-contamination from potential allergens to foods that are not typically causing allergic responses.
  • • The fruit used for citrus juices must be picked from trees, cleaned, and culled (the removal of any damaged fruit) prior to any type of treatment process.
  • • Processed juices must be tested for levels of generic E. coli in the finished product, and if one sample is positive the entire process must be reviewed for breaks in techniques.
  • • Shelf-stable juices and concentrates must be heat treated at 194°F or 90°C for 2 seconds and then the containers must be filled at 185°F or 85°C and then held for 1 minute at this temperature.
  • • Treat the surface of the fruit either with ultraviolet radiation, pulsed light, or a chemical treatment approved by the FDA.
  • • Pasteurize juices at 160°F or 71°C for 3 seconds.
  • • Control patulin in apple juice by not using any fallen fruit or fruit with visible damage, and proper storage of apples to avoid improper temperatures, core rot, and contamination from insects and fungi.
  • • Rigorously control the suppliers of juice concentrate when making juice from concentrates.
  • • Primarily focus on contamination by Salmonella in raw nuts because of how nuts are cultivated and harvested.
  • • Use heat treatment such as oil roasting, dry roasting, or steam pasteurization to control Salmonella, which is not eliminated during refrigeration, freezing, or drying.
  • • Carefully desegregate all crops affected by flood waters from crops that have been flood free.
  • • Do not use farm equipment that has either been contaminated by floodwaters or has been utilized to remove crops which have been damaged by flood waters when harvesting non- floodwater crops. Decontaminate all of this equipment as quickly as possible.
  • • Establish a 30-foot buffer zone between flooded areas and those areas containing crops that will be used for human consumption.

• Conduct a survey of the wells providing water to the process and determine if they have become contaminated by flood waters and if so follow all necessary procedures for decontamination before utilizing the water for crops or processing of food for human consumption.

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