Fruits and vegetables play an important role in providing nutrients to you like vitamin C, thiamine, niacin, pyridoxine, folic acid, minerals, and dietary fibre. Since consumers have become more health conscious, the market for fresh foods and vegetables has steadily increased. Besides direct consumption, processing of fruits and vegetables has also seen an upsurge. An increase in the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has also brought to the forefront of food safety concerns.
One of the important criteria for evaluating the quality of fruits and vegetables is their appearance like maturity, colour, shape, aroma, flavour as well as texture. Another important indicator of quality is the absence of harmful substances in these fruits and vegetables, as more often than not they are consumed raw, particularly fruit. Fruits and vegetables can be contaminated with harmful substances pre-harvest by animals, insects, water, soil, dirty equipment, and poor human handling. Post‐harvest they can be contaminated by unclean wash water, packing materials, process equipment, and dirty transportation vehicles. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has set the standards for fruits and vegetables that all food businesses must comply with if food safety and quality are to be maintained. However, there is no way to detect harmful substances or find out if the fruits and vegetables are within standards unless they are tested in a food laboratory.
While the FSSAI is responsible for making the food laws and seeing they are enforced, it is also the responsibility of food producers, distributors, handlers and vendors to ensure compliance of these food laws. Most food processors who process fruits and vegetables follow best practices, comply with regulations and also get the fruits and vegetables tested. However, not all consumers are aware of the food safety and rely on the FSSAI to ensure all food products in the market are safe. However, consumers must be educated and made aware that fruits and vegetables can be contaminated or adulterated and so they need to be careful and ensure that their purchase is safe to eat.
Food Safety from chemicals
Fruits and vegetables can get contaminated any time in the food chain from farm to fork, especially chemical contamination. Water pollution, heavy metals in the environment, excessive use of pesticides, and chemical fertilizers can cause chemical contamination.
Over a prolonged period of time, any form of chemical in fruits and vegetables, when consumed can endanger human health.Two main factors that are known to be a health risk in consumers, especially when eating raw fruits and vegetables, are the presence of heavy metals like lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and copper as well as pesticide residues above permitted limits. In addition, chemical additives like non-food grade colouring agents and preservatives, can also pose a danger to consumer health.
Sometimes, there is intentional adulteration in fruit and vegetables as it is used as a marketing strategy. The main forms of adulteration in fruits and vegetables is addition of non-permitted synthetic colours to alter the appearance, so they look more attractive. The use of non-permitted chemicals to increase shelf life is also rampant. In vegetables, copper sulphate and colours like malachite green is frequently used on green chili, green peas, bitter gourd, lady ﬁnger and pointed gourd to show them green and fresh. Similarly watermelons can be adulterated with cheap but non-permitted colours like methanol yellow, lead chromate and Sudan red. Saccharine mixture is known to be injected into fruits especially melons and watermelons to make them extra sweet. Sometimes cabbages are treated with formaldehyde to keep them fresh post-harvest storage. Though banned, calcium carbide or ‘masala’ as it is known by, is still used to ripen fruits.
As fruits and vegetables have to be transported over great distances, especially as part of global trade, the surfaces of certain fresh fruit and even vegetables are coated with glazes or waxes or are treated with other food additives that help to preserve the freshness and quality of the produce. Coating or waxing reduces deterioration in the freshness and so enhances the cosmetic appearance of fruits. FSSAI permits the use of food grade waxes obtained from natural sources like carnauba wax. However, fruits and vegetables that contain petroleum-based waxes can contain solvent residues that can be harmful. Food testing can determine the kind of wax that has been used on fruits and vegetables.
Food safety from microbiological contamination
There are several factors that cause microbiological contamination in fruits and vegetables. Since, food is biological in nature, therefore, it can easily support the growth of pathogens like viruses and bacteria. Pathogens species like Staphylococcus, Salmonella, Clostridium, Campylobacter, Listeria, Vibrio, Bacillus, and E. coli, are harmful pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses. Since several fruits and some vegetables are eaten raw food safety needs to be assured. While the fruits and vegetables are being harvested contamination can occur from workers who can transfer pathogens from improper or unsafe handling. Reusable and unclean storage crates can cause microbiological contamination. Post-harvest, any fruits and vegetables that have a cut are prone to growth of pathogens. Since cut surfaces release liquids that are nutrient rich, pathogens become attached and microbes like bacteria, yeast and fungi that cause spoilage too. Fresh‐cut fruits and vegetables can also harbor pathogenic bacteria capable of causing human infections, such as Listeria, Salmonella spp., and E-coli.
Another factor that can cause microbiological contamination in fruits and vegetables is poor personal hygiene practices of food handlers and food preparers that can prove to be a health risk. Simple activities such as thorough hand washing and adequate washing facilities to wash the fruits and vegetables can prevent many foodborne illnesses.When there is the need for large scale cooking as in restaurants, food catering services or even langars, bhogs and hostels food is handled by many individuals. Improper handling of fruits and vegetables can lead to accidental contamination of food during such large-scale production. Food handlers can cause cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods and also if high risk foods like salads or fresh fruit desserts are not stored in the right temperature or prepared too much in advance.
While having a diet which has plenty of fruits and vegetables is beneficial for health but at the same time consumers must be aware that unless handled safely fruits and vegetables can lead to health risks too. When fruits and vegetables are consumed raw, pathogens must be reduced by adequate washing, proper storage, and by avoiding cross‐contamination. It is therefore important to select them properly and prepare them safely. So, if you enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables ensure you are taking these steps to avoid any health issues.
At the store or market
- Choose a store where the fresh fruits and vegetables are being handled safely
- Buy only seasonal fruits and vegetables
- Choose fruits and vegetables that do not have cuts or which are damaged
- Avoid pre-cut fruits and vegetables but if you do buy them do so only if they are under refrigerated storage.
- Carry fruits and vegetables in one grocery bag and raw meat, poultry or seafood in a separate bag.
- On reaching home wash your hands thoroughly
- Wash and scrub fruits and vegetables under running water even the fruits with peels which you do not eat. The germs can get inside fruits and vegetables when you cut or peel them.
- Clean fruits and vegetables thoroughly and cut away any damaged areas.
- Dry the fruits and vegetables
- In the refrigerator store fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat products
- Before preparing fresh fruits and vegetables wash the food preparation surfaces, the chopping board and knives