The FDA recently found one fifth of the avocados they tested were contaminated with dangerous bacteria, but consumers can take simple steps to prevent foodborne illness.
With the Super Bowl only weeks away, avocados have been added to the list of produce with potential bacterial contamination.
But don’t worry, your pregame guacamole should still be safe.
Thanks to the avocado’s thick skin, a few simple food-prep steps can help you get your dip into the end zone while leaving behind any foodborne illness.
In December, the Food and Drug Administration released a report of testing done on over 1,600 imported and domestic avocados between 2014 and 2016, looking for bacterial contamination.
The FDA found that Listeria monocytogenes was present on the skin of 17 percent of the avocados. Less than 1 percent tested positive for Listeria inside the avocado.
Also, less than 1 percent of the avocados showed signs of Salmonella.
Listeria is a bacterium that causes listeriosis, an infection that mainly affects pregnant women, newborns, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems.
Symptoms start one to four weeks after eating contaminated food, and include diarrhea and fever.
But listeriosis can also lead to miscarriage or stillbirth in pregnant women, or headache, loss of balance, and convulsions in other susceptible groups.
The FDA recommends that consumers scrub the outside of the avocado with a produce brush and dry it with a clean cloth or paper towel to reduce the number of bacteria that may be present.
This can also be done with other “hard skin” produce, such as melons and oranges.
Randy Worobo, PhD, a professor of food safety at Cornell University, said you can also wash avocados and other hard-skinned produce in a light bleach solution — half a tablespoon of bleach in one gallon of water — to kill bacteria that may be present.
“If you don’t wash and sanitize the exterior,” said Worobo, “you can drag the contamination from the outside to the inside when you cut the skin.”
The FDA said in its report that “other practices associated with avocado consumption may reduce the risk to consumers as well. Consumers commonly slice avocados and extract the fruit’s pulp prior to eating it, discarding the fruit’s peel as they would a banana peel or an orange rind.”
“Consumers also typically eat avocados shortly after slicing the fruit, as its pulp tends to brown quickly once exposed to oxygen. These practices generally limit the amount of the pathogen, if present, that consumers may be exposed to,” the FDA added.
Worobo said bacteria, like Listeria, are naturally found in the environment. So any raw agricultural food product can potentially carry foodborne pathogens — even those purchased in a supermarket.
Consumers, though, can take simple steps to reduce their risk of foodborne illness.
“When you prepare and handle food,” said Worobo, “avoid temperature abuse and cross-contamination so pathogens don’t get into your food.”
Produce should be refrigerated to keep it fresh and minimize the growth of bacteria or other pathogens.
Prepared foods like guacamole and potato salad should also be refrigerated until ready to be eaten.
“If you did have low levels of pathogens on the raw products,” said Worobo, “and you made a dip and left it out at room temperature, you are creating conditions that allow for pathogen growth.”
Avoid cross-contamination between fruits and vegetables, and raw meat, poultry, or seafood.
This means using separate kitchen utensils and storage containers for fruits and vegetables.
Also, wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops with hot water and soap after preparing raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
Plastic and other nonporous cutting boards should be run through the dishwasher after use.
For more food handling tips, see FoodSafety.gov.
And remember, food safety is a game that everyone can win at.
“Consumers have a role in guaranteeing the safety of the foods that they serve to their families,” said Worobo. “It’s everybody’s responsibility to try and minimize foodborne illness, not just the producers of the raw products.”