Many gardens were underwater as a result of recent flooding in the state. When floodwaters subside, is the produce left behind safe to eat?
“The answer depends, to a large degree, on how ‘clean’ the flood water was, or whether it was likely to have been contaminated by sewage, river water, farm run-off or industrial pollutants,” says Barbara Ingham, food science specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
“The most conservative answer—and the one that eliminates any and all risks—is to discard produce that was touched by floodwater,” Ingham says.
In general, produce that was touched–even splashed–by flood waters, presents a potential risk.
But with weeks still left in the growing season, people may try to salvage some garden crops. Ingham offers tips below on what to discard and what’s okay to use.
–Cook your produce thoroughly to ensure safety—especially if anything touched by floodwater will be served to those who may be seriously harmed by a foodborne illness, such as young children, the elderly, pregnant women or someone with a compromised immune system.
–Leafy vegetables, such as spinach or lettuce, cannot be consumed raw. The ridges and crevices in the leaves make them impossible to scrub clean.
–Soft fruits that are ready to harvest, such as strawberries and raspberries, must also be cooked. Their bumpy surfaces make it impossible to ensure they’re clean.
–Early season crops that remained above floodwater and that are scheduled for harvest within the next few weeks should be safe if cooked or peeled. “Examine any produce carefully before harvest,” says Ingham. “If it’s soft or has cracks, bruises or open fissures, throw it out.” To clean, begin by rinsing produce with clear tap water (do not use soap) followed by a two-minute soak in a weak chlorine solution of two tablespoons of bleach to one gallon water. Rinse in cool, clean tap water. Peel or cook thoroughly before eating, and take care to prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen. Change the bleach solution if the water gets dirty.
–Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflowers or other plants with flowers or fruits that have set are an unknown risk. Before you consume them raw, consider the source of the floodwater, the time since contamination occurred and the food’s appearance. Discard any tissue that is bruised, cracked or blemished. Wash fresh produce with clear water, followed by a brief soak in a solution of two tablespoons of bleach to one gallon of water. Then rinse or peel to help reduce remaining risk.
— Underground vegetables such as beets, carrots and potatoes that were planted late and are still immature (four to eight more weeks of growth) should be safe if harvested when mature. Root crops, such as new potatoes, that will be consumed within the month, should be washed in water, rinsed and sanitized in the bleach/water solution described above before cooking thoroughly. Beets may be peeled after cooking.
–Do not consume melons and other fruits that you would eat raw. Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness suggest that these low-acid fruits may not be safe even when their surfaces are sanitized.
–Late-season vegetables from flowers that develop after floodwaters subside should be safe. This could include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash or cucumbers. To be safe, cook them thoroughly or at least wash well and peel before eating.
–Do not can or preserve garden produce that is otherwise not fit for eating. And because home dehydrators do not get hot enough to destroy high numbers of bacteria, don’t attempt to dehydrate produce from flooded gardens.
“Never sell produce from a flood-damaged garden at a farm market or stand until you’re sure that all contamination has been removed from the garden—usually at least one month after the last flood,” says Ingham.
Check with the Division of Food Safety of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (608-224-4700) if you have questions about market sales of garden-flooded produce.
For more information on food safety, contact your county UW-Extension office. Contact information is available at http://counties.uwex.edu