Prevent bacteria from feasting on your fresh produce, causing spoilage

Moisture and temperature control is key to learning how to reduce food spoilage in perishable fruits and vegetables.

Many fresh fruits and vegetables have a short shelf life. Whether you are a family or household of one, you can take steps to help prevent bacteria from feasting on your food, before you do.

Bacteria, microscopic microbes that live in almost all natural environments, are the culprits that cause food to spoil. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service, food spoilage bacteria need nutrients and moisture to begin to rapidly multiply. The nutrients and water content of fresh produce are the exact combination that bacteria need to begin reproducing. Additional moisture in your refrigerator can further contribute to food spoilage, such as from condensation in plastic containers and plastic storage bags. When a moist environment is present, spoilage bacteria can grow rapidly forming small colonies that contain millions of bacteria. These colonies cause fresh fruits and vegetables to quickly decay and become inedible.

Michigan State University Extension recommends that consumers monitor the moisture of their fresh produce, especially in the refrigerator, to reduce bacterial growth. Use a paper towel to wipe away visual dampness from produce initially after purchase, as you place fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator. Check daily the condition of the fresh produce. Be vigilant and keep moisture from collecting in food storage containers or plastic bags, wiping away visual moisture.

It is important to keep the air flowing around food packages; don’t overly pack the crisper drawer where you store your perishables. Frequently clean the crisper drawer to reduce bacteria and do not reuse storage containers without washing with hot soap and water. Controlling the environment surrounding and touching produce will help to maintain freshness and reduce spoilage.

Since many fruits, berries and lettuces can only be stored for a few days, it is recommended that you plan ahead and only purchase the amount of fresh produce you can prepare and eat within three to five days. A limited number of fresh fruits and vegetables have product labeling pertaining to shelf life or a “use by date.” Understanding refrigeration storage guidelines is beneficial, as no one likes to have to throw away food.

To further preserve fruits and vegetables do not wash your produce or cut them up until it is time to prepare it for consumption. Be sure to package each type of fruit or vegetable in separate plastic bags as the air that circulates inside of your refrigerator can also dry out foods. It may be helpful to write the date you purchased each item on the storage container this can assist with monitoring the length of time it has been refrigerated. Buying frozen or canned rather than fresh fruits and vegetables may be a wise option during hectic weeks.

Temperature is another critical factor that affects bacterial growth. Bacteria grow and reproduce at specific temperatures, but generally bacteria multiply greatest between 41 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit, referred to as the “danger zone.” Refrigeration slows the growth of bacteria in food. Test the internal temperature of your refrigerator to be sure it is 40 degrees or colder. Once food is prepared, do not leave out at room temperature for more than two hours, as room temperature falls within the “danger zone” and bacteria will begin to grow.

Be aware of signs of food spoilage as both physical and chemical changes can take place in perishable food. As bacteria grow they produce waste products that cause the changes in appearance, texture, taste and smell of food. Foods may have an odd smell or even a rancid odor. Discoloration can occur and fruits and vegetables may turn brown, green or grey. A noticeable slimy texture on foods such as lettuce indicates food decay. Mold may also be present. Never taste food that you think may be spoiled.

You cannot totally eliminate bacteria from your kitchen, however you can control their growth by following these simple steps to help maintain optimal freshness in your fruits and vegetables.

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