Spain: The dangers of pre-cut fruit

We are not at home often, so we are unable to look after our eating choices as much as we would like. That is why when we are presented with the option of buying our groceries in the evening, or eating fresh cut fruit as a dessert at work, we see it as an opportunity to "do things right"; to eat something healthy. It is not a mistake: eating fruit is a good option.

However, besides the excessive use of plastic, the sanitary conditions in which this cut and/or packaged fruit is marketed are not always the best. We may be aware of the news, reported in recent days, about a salmonella outbreak in the United States, which has been linked to cut and packaged melon and watermelon.

The origin of the outbreak in the United States has not been determined, but the most probable causes pointed out by the experts would be poor manipulation of the fruit, lack of adherence to hygiene rules, cross-contamination or interruptions in the cold chain.

Salmonella is a bacteria genus that is a common cause of foodborne diseases. These bacteria can be found in meat, eggs and contaminated fruits and vegetables. In fact, bacteria are found in the intestinal tract of many animals, which are excreted in the faeces. That is why it is so important to follow the basic rules of hygiene in order to avoid contamination.

Can it be dangerous to buy cut fruit, which is increasingly popular in our greengrocers and markets? We asked several experts. "The sale of pre-cut fruit, packaged or not, is perfectly regulated," says Juan Revenga, dietitian, nutritionist and biologist (author of the blog "El nutricionista de la general").

We must pay more attention when the fruit is not hermetically packaged or hasn't gone through industrial sanitising processes (or is not labelled). Two very common situations: cut fruit in breakfast buffets in hotels, or the fruit in small trays covered with film or in plastic cups, like the ones available at greengrocers.

"In those cases, we must have very scrupulous hygienic and handling conditions. All people involved in the process must have the certification of food handler. A salmonellosis can be caused by unhygienic handlers carrying salmonella, going to the bathroom and not washing their hands afterwards. This is a breach of the legislation," says the nutritionist and biologist.

Moreover, according to Revenga, "the cold chain should not be broken. Once cut, the fruit should not be kept at room temperature," he says. The fruit is only allowed at room temperature in stores when it still has the skin to protect it.

Lluís Riera, director of SAIA, a Food Safety consultancy, has also issued some warnings. "In the field, the fruits are in contact with the soil, where there are fertilizers and bird faeces. That is why a correct sanitation is very important. Sometimes, things are not done as they should in the food industry.

In acidic fruits, this acid gives the fruit some extra protection against microorganisms. "But in the case of fruits like melon or watermelon, there is no such acid," says the food safety specialist. In the case of fruits with very thick skins, that outer layer protects the inside, "but problems can arise if no proper disinfection is carried out before cutting the melon or watermelon, and then the fruit, once cut, is not kept refrigerated." The bacteria that may have gone from the outside to the inside of the fruit reproduce much quicker at room temperature. So, once the fruit is cut, "it is essential that the cold chain is not broken."

What happens then with watermelons that are cut in half, or in quarters, wrapped in plastic and then displayed outside of cold storage for the entire day? "Nothing should happen, as long as that process is carried out in a hygienic way, but if I were the owner of the store, I would keep them refrigerated," says Revenga.

There are a couple of important warnings to consumers that we don't always follow: the washing of any fruit before consuming it and the use of plastic gloves when the buyer picks it from the supermarket shelves. "Even though we're talking about whole pieces, it's important. It is about protecting the rest of consumers. If we all do it, we will all be better protected."

What about bagged lettuce that is labelled "ready for consumption"? In this case, it is different. "This lettuce should be much safer than the one we clean at home, since it has gone through sanitary inspections and a disinfection process that we don't do at home. If the expiration date and recommended storage conditions are respected, it is much safer than fresh lettuce," explains Riera.


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