Discard flooded fruits, vegetables, experts say

Tobie Blanchard  |  3/22/2016 6:23:54 PM

(03/22/16) BATON ROUGE – Floodwaters have inundated homes, businesses and agricultural fields in many areas of Louisiana, and people need to be cautious.

Floodwaters can carry a high microbial load, said LSU AgCenter food safety expert Wenqing Xu. Any produce in backyard gardens or commercial fields that received flooding should be discarded.

Whether floodwaters remained on the garden or just touched the plants then receded, any edible parts of the plant should be picked and destroyed, Xu said.

“Home gardeners are at risk because food safety may not be on their minds, and they can’t see the bacteria on the plants,” Xu said

LSU AgCenter plant pathologist Melanie Lewis Ivey has conducted research on cantaloupe after flooding and has seen that pathogens can survive in the crevices of the rind for at least 72 hours after flooding.

Fruits and vegetables in fields now, such as strawberries and leafy greens, are high-risk plants because their surfaces offer places for foodborne pathogens to hide and grow.

“It doesn’t matter if the flooding was from rainwater or a river, the fruits or vegetables touched by water are not safe for human or animal consumption,” Ivey said.

She also said plants growing underground, such as carrots and turnips, should be destroyed.

The Food and Drug Administration offers guidelines on handling flooded produce meant to be consumed raw. Ivey said they don’t offer guidelines if you plan to cook the produce.

“More research needs to be conducted on whether cooking will kill the pathogens,” Ivey said, and both she and Xu agreed that flooded produce should be discarded and not cooked.

“We don’t know what the microbial load is in the floodwaters and what time and temperature cooking would be enough to kill the bacteria that cause foodborne illness,” Xu said.

If plants survive the flooding, subsequent fruits or vegetables – such as new strawberries – are safe to eat, Ivey said. She also warned consumers to ask questions before buying produce grown in areas that were flooded.

“Ask if the field received a flood,” Ivey said. “It’s always good to ask the farmers what are their management practices.”

Gardeners who use well water for irrigation and experienced flooding should inspect their well and the well pump for damage, she said.

“If the well is compromised, don’t drink from it or use it for irrigation,” Ivey said.

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