Raw Food Safety
Just because we don’t cook our foods doesn’t mean standard time and temperature rules for handling foods don’t apply. If anything, eating raw makes sanitation even more important! Here’s some helpful information for keeping your raw kitchen safe and healthy.
At Raw Fusion Foods we like to emphasize the positive, but if there’s one subject we don’t take lightly it is food safety. To us food safety basics are extremely important. Food poisoning, or foodborne illness, is a serious matter. In the United States, for example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick annually from food poisoning, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths (1). These numbers should especially concern raw chefs – even if we are avoiding meat and poultry – because unlike most cooks we can’t rely on high temperatures to kill harmful bacteria. The time and temperature rules of food safety still apply; if anything proper refrigeration and timely preparation of raw food becomes more essential.
All those fruits and vegetables you’ll now be processing can pick up germs at many different steps along the way to your plate – bacteria in the soil or water where your produce grew, along with germs it could have been exposed to from harvest through preparation, storage and finally transportation to your local market. It’s up to you to make sure the germs and pesticides stop there.
Given the stakes, let us consider the proper washing and preparation of your raw produce. Some universal rules apply, first. (Please note that most governmental agencies would add a fourth rule here – Cook – that is less applicable to raw cuisine preparation methods and will be discussed in detail in subsequent articles.)
Food Safety Basics
- Clean — Always wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds (try singing your “A-B-Cs” at a non-rushed pace) before handling food. Clean your food preparation surfaces often too.
- Separate — Don’t mix and potentially cross-contaminate your ingredients before preparing.
- Refrigerate — Refrigerate or freeze foods within 2 hours, or 1 if they’re exposed to temperatures above 90°F. (Some kinds of produce, such as cantaloupe or tomatoes, can be stored on your counter until they’ve been cut; once they have the same rules for timely refrigeration apply.) Keep your refrigerator set to no higher than 40°F, and your freezer to 0°F or below.
Properly washing food is essential to get rid of any dirt, pesticides and bacteria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not recommend washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent, or using commercial produce washes. One trick we still use, however, is adding a tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide into the sink along with water, then letting your fruits and vegetables sit in it for 20 minutes. After this time don’t be surprised to see a layer of dark sediment at the bottom of your sink that’s been soaked away. Rinse your produce thoroughly when finished.
Another washing tip to bear in mind: if you are working with hard produce, or produce with a thick skin or rind that you intend to peel and eat, it still needs to be washed thoroughly. Use a vegetable brush to scrub hard produce like carrots, melons and cucumbers. Even if you intend to discard a hard outer peel or skin, keep in mind that both your hands and cooking utensils are still going to come into contact with that skin and can transfer bacteria to the foods you do intend to eat. It can also spread germs onto your cutting surface. Better safe and clean than sorry.
After washing, dry your produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel. Place it in a different, clean container than whatever it was in before cleaning. With your washing done, you’ll also want to cut away any damaged or bruised areas on your produce before preparing and/or eating, throwing out any food that appears rotten.
When talking about cutting surfaces, it bears emphasizing, even for raw chefs, that you should never prepare fruits and vegetables on the same surface as meat and poultry. Even fruits and vegetables ought to be prepared on a different surface. When cutting mixed produce, try placing a clean cloth down on your countertop first, underneath your cutting board. When you are done chopping all your fruits, flip over your cutting board and use the opposite side for your vegetables – the cloth between it and your countertop kept the opposite surface clean and ready to use. The cloth might also help keep your cutting board from slipping during prep work – a potentially important side benefit when working with sharp kitchen knives.
Be sure to wash your cutting boards thoroughly in hot, soapy water after each use or place them in your dishwasher. What type of cutting board you rely on – wooden, plastic, stone, etc. – is up to you as long as you properly clean and maintain it. Discard old cutting boards that are cracked or covered with heavy knife scars.
After cutting your food, wash your cutting board, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water. And of course, re-wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. All this may seem like a lot of precaution, but it soon will become second nature whenever you are in the kitchen. Practice these food safety preparation techniques whenever you’re making meals and your kitchen and body will remain a cleaner, healthier place.
We will be exploring food safety in greater detail in future articles. Until then, an excellent source of further discussion and many more related topics, including product recalls and alerts, can be found at http://www.foodsafety.gov/index.html, a gateway to food safety information provided by U.S. government agencies.
There’s a “Danger Zone” in your raw kitchen, and no, we don’t mean that cheesy song from the movie Top Gun. It is a basic tenet of food safety that bad, unhealthy things happen to foods left out too long in temperatures between 40° F to 140° F. Bacteria grow most rapidly in this temperature danger zone – doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes, according to the USDA. Unlike most cooks, raw chefs can’t rely on cooking foods above 140° F to kill harmful bacteria, but we can learn to use refrigeration properly to keep our foods as fresh, healthy and safe as possible. Let’s consider the cool end of the danger zone.
Before getting to the specifics of which kinds of produce need to be refrigerated, though, take a few moments to review the accompanying two “Cool Rules” charts. They provide an introduction to some basic refrigeration rules applicable to any kitchen, not just for raw food eaters.
Here are some more general rules of thumb about when to refrigerate or freeze:
- If you are completely in the dark wondering how to store your fresh fruits and vegetables once you get home, think back to how it was stored at your grocery store and do the same. If your item wasn’t in a refrigerated case or sold on ice at your store it likely does not need refrigeration. If you’re not sure ask your grocer.
- Refrigerate all pre-cut or peeled produce.
- Similarly, once you break a fruit or vegetable’s “natural container” (its skin or peel) you must refrigerate it.
- If you won’t be able to use your fruits or vegetables before their “expiration dates” consider freezing them in a plastic bag to avoid wasting them.
- Store fruits and vegetables above meats, poultry and seafood in your refrigerator so that meat juices – which may contain harmful bacteria – don’t drip on your produce. Always discard any items in the refrigerator that have come into contact with raw meat juices.
- You can wash most kinds of produce before storing, except for mushrooms, which should be wiped instead (otherwise they tend to absorb cleaning water like a sponge).
- You can store cut celery and cut carrots in water in your refrigerator.
Vegetables and fruits play such a major role in a raw food diet raw diet that knowing which to refrigerate and which to leave out, if only for long enough to ripen, is vital. Most of us probably have our own ideas about what goes where, perhaps inherited from our parents – but with so many new, exotic kinds of produce available, our mental list may be due for an update. The chart below, “Room Temperature Produce,” is a good start – if a well-known fruit or vegetable is not listed here it likely should be headed to your refrigerator as soon as soon as you bring it home from the store.
Some of the more popular kinds of fruits you can ripen on the counter first and then refrigerate: avocados, kiwi, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums.
Fruits you can store at room temperature: apples (less than a week old), bananas, cantaloupe, grapefruit, lemons, limes, mangoes, oranges, papayas, pineapple, pomegranates, watermelons.
Vegetables you can store at room temperature: basil (in water), cucumber, dry onions, eggplant, garlic, ginger, jicama, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, winter squash. . (1) (For an excellent, in-depth discussion of produce storage, along with a handy storage rule chart for many types of produce, see this article http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/datastore/234-1920.pdf and visit the University of California – Davis Postharvest Technology website.)
Once you’ve identified which of your foods can be stored at room temperature, remember that it’s best not to store them all together in one large bowl or you’ll risk rapid spoiling and wastage. That is partly because ripening produce emits ethylene, a colorless, slightly musky/sweet smelling gas that can cause nearby produce to spoil more quickly. Produce sensitive to ethylene will be more likely to yellow, brown, soften or decay at an accelerated rate.
Some kinds of produce emit more ethylene than others. Popular produce that should be stored separately from other fruits and vegetables because they create a lot of ethylene include:
- pears (European varieties such as Bartlett, Bosc and d’Anjou),
- firm and ripe tomatoes. (2)
For the produce that’s headed to your refrigerator, you’ll want to store it in perforated plastic bags to allow air to circulate and not allow moisture to condense inside the bag and speed up mold formation. Store vegetables away from fruit, again because of ethylene concerns. You may want to try using “green bags,” which absorb ethylene. (The effectiveness of Green Bags can make for a contentious debate, but our Raw Fusion staff has had positive results using them to extend the shelf life of many kinds of produce. Proper attention to moisture build-up and cleaning the bags between uses are a must.)
Most kinds of produce can be frozen, with some hardier types like beets, cabbage and kale able to withstand several episodes of light freezing and thawing during transport from farmer to your local store. Some, however, are extremely sensitive to freezing and will show frost damage like pitting, discoloration, off-flavors, general mushiness, and rapid decay. The table below lists the kinds of produce the USDA says are most sensitive to freezing damage (3) so be warned that freezing them or even refrigeration could significantly alter their taste and appearance.
For raw food chefs, we would like to add a caveat to the “Frost Warning” table. While you certainly wouldn’t want to freeze bananas and then later thaw and serve them as fresh later, frozen bananas can be useful and quite tasty when used to make recipes such as raw ice cream or smoothies. The same goes for most fruits or vegetables that you plan to mix into a smoothie or frozen concoction later.
One final thought on refrigeration, freezing and food safety. Power outages are a (hopefully) rare but unavoidable fact of life, which means we occasionally need to know how long we can keep food after the power goes out. Generally, food in the refrigerator should be safe as long as power is out no more than 4 hours. Keep the door closed as much as possible so that you do not waste cool air before power is restored. Discard any perishable foods (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and leftovers) that have visited the “Danger Zone” (above 40 °F) for over 2 hours. See the “Power Shortage Produce” chart below to learn what to do with refrigerated fruits and vegetables after a power outage.
We have covered a lot of information about how raw chefs can use their refrigerators to keep all their healthy foods out of the “Danger Zone.” If you have more general concerns or just want to learn more about eating safely remember to visit
http://www.foodsafety.gov/index.html, a gateway to food safety information provided by U.S. government agencies.
As a raw food eater you might pride yourself on paying closer attention than the average shopper when picking out your fresh fruits and vegetables. Odds are you’ve noticed those small numeric stickers and assumed they were there to help your grocer speed up check-outs and keep track of their inventory. They are, but those numbers can also help steer you towards healthier or organic choices. Consider it produce sudoku, only it’s a much easier game… once you know what to look for.
The number stickers in question are called Price Look-Up codes (or PLUs). More importantly, PLU numbers tell you whether your produce was grown regularly (i.e. non-organic, using pesticides), organically (without), or even from genetically-modified stock (GMOs). In short, if the sticker number is:
- Four digits long = regularly grown produce,
- Five digits long, beginning with the number “9” = organically grown, or
- Five digits long, beginning with the number “8” = genetically modified.
Let’s start by looking at a simple red tomato to illustrate how the numbers work. In the photo below, at center, the number 4664 signifies red tomatoes sold in clusters, still attached on the vine, or truss. This is a four-digit number, so you know that this particular tomato makes no claims on being organic. There are unique 4-digit number combinations associated with whatever produce type you can name. For example, 4131 always identifies large Fuji apples, 3108 signifies a medium Valencia orange, while 4942 refers to sunflower seeds, regardless of where they were produced. At the moment there are more than 1,300 different PLU codes assigned to specific produce and related items.
Now look at the tomato at left in our next picture. Remember that Organic food is identified by a five-digit number that begins with 9, so in this case 94664 means it’s once again a red (truss) tomato on the vine, but also that it passes USDA standards to be considered organic. The USDA considers a food or agricultural product organic if it has been produced through approved methods (subject to annual inspections) integrating “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”*
If you look again, very closely, at the upper right hand corner of our organic 94664 tomato you’ll notice the USDA organic seal, further evidence it’s been certified by the government through the National Organic Program.
A third kind of red (truss) tomato on the vine you might find in your grocery store would have the PLU number 84664. Remember, a five-digit number that begins with an eight, such as 84664 would represent a breed that’s been genetically modified. GMOs are hotly debated manmade creations that provoke a passionate response from many nutritionists and raw food eaters. We won’t go into the GMO controversy here, but for the time being, now you know how to spot them in your local produce bin.
A final word about PLU codes – although we’ve been discussing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s take on organic foods, PLU codes are created by the International Federation for Produce Standards, a coalition of global fruit and vegetable associations. The IFPS’s objective is improving the supply chain efficiency of the fresh produce industry through standardization, but in this case smart shoppers can take advantage of the industry’s numbering system to make their own better-informed purchases.
If you are looking for organics on your next shopping trip, remember to think “9 to 5” – a five-digit PLU starting with 9 may be your healthiest choice.
Food safety is always paramount for the raw chef, but perhaps one particular type of raw food deserves more caution and care than all others – sprouts. Sprouts are the young, tender green plants germinated from the seeds of all sorts of flora. You might have noticed popular sprouts like alfalfa, broccoli or clover in your sandwich at a restaurant or deli. Sprouts, however, pose potential safety risks that everyone, raw food eaters included, should be aware of… enough of a risk that some U.S. government agencies recommend not to eat them at all.
You may notice we often call for soaking nuts and seeds in our recipes, but not often for sprouting (if at all). Even if they may both involve a seed and water, these are two distinctly different processes. There are plenty of reasons to soak nuts, including simply increasing their water content, softening them up to make them easier to process, resulting in more consistently creamy results in raw recipes from soups to sauces and dressings. We also frequently use some form of nuts as a meat replacement – for example, using soaked walnuts to try to capture the feel and texture of meats in recipes calling for mock chicken, walnut taco meat or walnut sausage. You could even consider almond milk, a mainstay in raw cuisine that has crossed over into mainstream popularity, to be an extension of the soaking paradigm.
Sprouting, however, we just don’t employ as frequently as soaking in our recipes. We do use sprouts in our raw tacos, nori seaweed rolls and pad thai, and as a garnish occasionally. That’s not to say that aren’t many reasons to sprout, because sprouts can deliver exceptional nutritional value, sometimes at multiples of a mature version of the same plant. Some nutritional highlights, according to the International Sprouts Growers Association:
- Alfalfa sprouts contain high levels of saponins, which may reduce cholesterol.
- Broccoli sprouts contain 20 to 50 times more cancer-inhibiting compounds than mature broccoli heads.
- Soy sprouts contain as much protein as 100 grams of eggs with zero cholesterol.
- Pea sprouts contain 3 times more phosphorus than spinach, and over 4 times its potassium and niacin.
- Radish Sprouts provide 40 times more vitamin A than a mature radish. (1)
Sprouts, however, mandate the need for extra caution because they are much more of a food poisoning risk. Sprouts periodically make the news when linked to food poisoning outbreaks. In early 2012, for example, an 11-state e. coli outbreak traced to raw clover sprouts affected 29 persons and sent 7 to the hospital.(2) Thankfully there were no fatalities, but repeated outbreaks associated with sprouts reportedly convinced the retail sandwich chain involved to stop serving sprouts.
According to FoodSafety.gov, a gateway to food safety information provided by various U.S. government agencies, sprouts have been associated with at least 30 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1996(3). This site even goes as far as ruling out eating sprouts entirely for certain at-risk groups of people, including:
- the elderly,
- pregnant women, and
- persons with weakened immune systems.
The bottom line is that any raw produce carries a risk of foodborne illness (see our Food Safety Basics article for a refresher course on how to minimize these risks), but the conditions necessary for sprouting seeds and beans – warmth and humidity – are also ideal for growing bacteria like Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli.
Yet even diligently clean sprouting procedures don’t rule out food poisoning risks. Seeds themselves can become contaminated even before sprouting, as bacteria can enter seeds through cracks in the shell. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “once this occurs, these bacteria are nearly impossible to wash out. Sprouts grown in the home are also risky if eaten raw. Many outbreaks have been linked to contaminated seed. If pathogenic bacteria are present in or on the seed, they can grow to high levels during sprouting - even under clean conditions.”(4)
(Irradiating food could solve the contaminated seed problem, but irradiated foods themselves are anathema to many. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims irradiated foods are safe, and that “nutrient losses caused by irradiation are less than or about the same as losses caused by cooking and freezing,”(5) which undoubtedly throws up a red flag for raw food devotees.)
The FDA’s suggestions to reduce the risk of eating tainted sprouts may seem excessive or downright draconian to some, but bear repeating. The FDA recommends avoiding raw sprouts of any kind (including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts), checking restaurant sandwiches and salads for unwanted sprouts and, if you simply have to have them, cooking all sprouts thoroughly – something raw eaters may not want to hear.Still, if sprouts are so highly nutritious that you want them in your food regardless, some safety precautions to keep in mind:
- If buying your sprouts buy from reputable stores you trust that keep them refrigerated and that you trust to maintain time and temperature safety guidelines all the way from through farm, transport and store. Follow time and temperature safety precautions once you get them home as well.
- Always rinse thoroughly when preparing them.
- If you are sprouting yourself, use sprouting jars from reputable sellers.
- Regularly clean and maintain your equipment.
- Monitor your product closely, following proper sprouting instructions carefully and rinsing twice a day during sprouting.
Although lettuce or greens might offer a very somewhat analogous alternative to sprouts in individual recipes, there may be no true substitute for the taste, texture and vitamin-packed nutritional value of sprouts. Food safety is paramount for all raw foods, but if you plan on eating sprouts be extra vigilant.
(If you are new to soaking and sprouting and looking for an explanation of how the process works, see our story Eating Raw Beans: Soak and Sprout Your Way to a Protein-Rich Raw Diet.)
1 “Resolve to Make Sprouts Part of Your Healthy Eating in 2012,” International Sprout Growers Association, accessed October 1, 2012, http://www.isga-sprouts.org/healthysprouts.htm
2 “Multistate Outbreak of Shiga Toxin-producing Escherichia coli O26 Infections Linked to Raw Clover Sprouts at Jimmy John’s Restaurants,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed October 1, 2012, http://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2012/O26-02-12/index.html
3 “Sprouts: What You Should Know,” FoodSafety.gov, accessed September 25, 2012, http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/types/fruits/sprouts.html
4 “Safe Eats – Fruits, Veggies & Juices,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, accessed September 25, 2012, http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/HealthEducators/ucm082417.htm
5 “Irradiation and Food Safety: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions,” USDA, accessed October 1, 2012, http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FACTSheets/Irradiation_and_Food_Safety/index.asp