There’s a parasite in Ontario that’s making people sick and the culprit could be lurking in fresh fruit and vegetables.
Officials are warning about a cyclospora outbreak, an infection that can lead to an intestinal illness called cyclosporiasis. It causes a severe upset stomach as well as diarrhea, nausea, tiredness, and loss of appetite.
Health Canada describes cyclospora as a “microscopic single-celled parasite that is passed in people’s feces (poop).”
The parasite is typically found in imported fresh greens, vegetables and fruits such as basil, cilantro, pre-packaged salad mix, mesclun lettuce, snow peas, and raspberries.
Here’s how to wash and store produce to reduce the risk of infection:
Fresh herbs, like basil and cilantro
- Pick herbs that have bright leaves and a fresh smell. Stalks should be crisp and the leaves should not be dried out.
- Avoid leaves that are yellow or brown or have black spots.
- Fresh herbs should be stored unwashed in the refrigerator. Trim the ends of the stalks and put them into a re-sealable plastic bag. Store the herbs in the crisper or vegetable bin of your refrigerator for up to five days.
- Fresh herbs can also be frozen after they’ve been washed and patted dry with paper towels. Store in freezer bags.
- Basil should be stored unwashed, uncovered, and unrefrigerated. Refrigerating it may cause the basil leaves to turn black. It is the only herb that should be stored this way.
- Use warm water and soap to thoroughly wash all utensils, countertops, and cutting boards before and after handling fresh herbs.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, before and after handling fresh herbs.
- Throw out any leaves that are yellowing or have black spots.
- Rinse fresh herbs under fresh, cool running water. There is no need to use anything other than water to wash herbs. Washing them gently with water is as effective as using produce cleansers.
- Don’t soak fresh herbs in a sink full of water. They can become contaminated by bacteria in the sink.
Lettuce and lettuce mixes
- Look for leaves that are crisp. Avoid ones that are wilted or brown.
- If buying ready-to-eat, bagged, pre-washed leafy greens, make sure they are refrigerated.
- Store leafy greens in the refrigerator for up to seven days. Discard when leaves become wilted or brown.
- Bagged, ready-to-eat, pre-washed leafy greens should also be refrigerated and used before the expiration date.
- Washing your hands and following proper cleaning techniques can help you avoid cross-contamination and prevent the spread of food poisoning.
- Use warm water and soap to thoroughly wash all utensils, countertops, and cutting boards before and after handling leafy greens.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, before and after handling leafy greens.
- Discard outer leaves.
- Wash your leafy greens under fresh, cool running water. There is no need to use anything other than water to wash leafy greens. Washing them gently with water is as effective as using produce cleansers.
- Keep rinsing until all of the dirt has been washed away.
- Don’t soak leafy greens in a sink full of water. They can become contaminated by bacteria in the sink.
- Ready-to-eat leafy greens sold in sealed packages and labelled as washed, pre-washed or triple washed, do not need to be washed again.
General food safety tips
- Cleaning anything that comes into contact with food will help eliminate bacteria and reduce the risk of food-related illness. This includes your hands, kitchen surfaces, utensils, fruit and vegetables and reusable grocery bags.
- Wash your hands. Use regular soap or an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available.
- Wash with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Wash your hands after handling pets, changing diapers and of course, using the bathroom.
- Separate your cutting boards. Use one board for produce and another for raw meat, poultry, fish and seafood.
- Plate or utensils used to handle raw food should be washed thoroughly with soap before reuse.
- Use paper towels to wipe kitchen surfaces. Otherwise, change dishcloths daily to avoid the risk of cross-contamination and the spread of bacteria.
- Avoid using sponges, as they are harder to keep bacteria-free.
- Sanitize countertops, cutting boards and utensils before and after preparing food. Use a kitchen sanitizer (as directed) or a bleach solution (5 millilitres, or mL, bleach to 750 mL of water). Rinse all items carefully with water.
- Wash your reusable grocery bags frequently.
- Wash your fresh fruit and vegetables with potable water before use.
- Use a vegetable brush on produce that have a firm skin (examples: carrots, melons, oranges, and potatoes).
- Do not use soap to wash your produce.
- Wash your produce under running water instead of soaking it in the sink. Bacteria in the sink could be transferred to your food.
Tips from Health Canada