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An urgent reminder from me and the FDA

Rebecca Firkser
Updated: February 27, 2018

The FDA recently conducted a series of tests to explore the bacterial contamination of fresh herbs. Herbs like basil, cilantro, and parsley are typically served fresh, which means that if they go unwashed, eating them can potentially expose you to harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. Cooking potential carriers of bad bacteria is known as a “kill step,” but since herbs are typically eaten raw, any contact they may have had with bacteria in soil or water could make you sick. As a result of this testing, the FDA made some pretty stomach-turning discoveries.

After collecting samples from both imported and domestic suppliers of herbs starting in October 2017, the FDA found that of the 104 imported herbs, 3 of the tested positive for shiga toxin-producing E. coli, and 4 tested positive for salmonella. None of the 35 domestic herbs tested positive for bacterial contamination.

Domestic avocado samples didn’t do as well as the herbs. After testing 107 avocado samples (among them “fresh cut, pureed, refrigerated and frozen product, as well as frozen avocado pulp with additives,” as well as guacamole), the FDA found that four of the products contained listeria, three of which were produced domestically.

To avoid getting sick from your herbs, wash them properly. The best way to do this is to dunk the herbs in a bowl or salad spinner full of of cold water. Dump the water and repeat this step a few times, swishing the herbs around in the bowl, especially if the herbs are caked with a lot of dirt. After the water runs clean, fill the bowl again and add a few spritzes of fruit and vegetable wash or a splash of white vinegar. Swish the herbs around, then rinse the mixture 2 or 3 times again. Dry the herbs on a kitchen towel or spin them in the salad spinner.

Although the FDA didn’t test fresh whole avocados, they’re probably the best bet when it comes to buying uncontaminated avocado. Rinse off the skin and spritz it with a bit of fruit and vegetable wash before slicing.

As for guacamole, buy it prepared from sources you trust or DIY. If you’re worried about potential contamination of herbs at a restaurant, ask your server or cashier how the herbs were washed. If they don’t know or won’t tell, ask to skip the herbs. Unfortunately, there’s no way to make 100 percent sure that your herbs and avocado are clean, but if you wash them carefully you’ll probably beat the odds.

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