By Dr PRASHANT THAPLIYAL
Sanitisation of perishable food products such as fruits and vegetables is a cause for concern to us during the corona outbreak. Long duration lockdowns, over exposure to television, social media or print media have weakened human psychology to such an extent that people start believing in the fake news and information generated by the news-mongers and rumour-mongers, meaning to create chaos and unrest in society. According to a renowned Psychiatrist, Dr Samir Parikh, anxiety turns into fear psychosis and this is taking its toll on our food management and we have started adopting some awkward practices of late. Owing to all this, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) brought out food hygiene and safety guidelines on 15 April, 2020, categorically mentioning that so far there have been no cases of COVID linked with food as virus cannot replicate on food and hence is unable to deteriorate it. Yet, poor health and hygiene of food handlers can play some role as corona can transmit through direct contact or through droplet infections. This is in consonance with the assertions made by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), USA, that chances of spreading of COVID-19 transmission through food or food packaging are scarce.
The need to sanitise perishable food items viz. fruits and vegetables has been in practice since days of yore, even though in the wake of the corona pandemic it has become invigorated as people are taking more precautions now. Before we go into the nitty-gritty of some of the effective techniques as suggested by experts the world over on sanitising food items, let’s have a look at the phases through which fruits and vegetables pass before reaching the hands of the consumers. In the agriculture fields, manure produced by animal or human wastes is used. Though composting reduces the presence of pathogens and toxic agents in such manure, yet due to negligence or ignorance, untreated sludge can pour into the fields having large number of harmful pathogens in the form of bacteria, amoebae, viruses, parasites, etc.
Insecticides and pesticides used in the fields as a defence mechanism also leave residues of harmful chemicals which can remain with the produce. Some of the fruits are artificially wax coated for enhancing the gloss to make them presentable to potential buyers. Unlike the natural wax present in apple, orange, pears, which is removed during washing, artificial wax is stickier and traps pesticide beneath hence can be carcinogenic. In the process of transportation from field to the consumers, fruits and vegetables pass through several hands and pathogens keep multiplying manifold. Fruits and vegetables in the present scenario may carry dirt, pathogens, insecticides, pesticides, wax and a new guest pathogen in the list the novel corona virus named SARS-COV-2. According to Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, USA (CDC), there are eight pathogens (bacteria, virus and parasites) that account for food borne illnesses. Those include six bacteria (Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes), one virus (Norovirus) and one parasite (Toxoplasma gondii).
As most of the food handlers in food and agribusiness in India hail from the lower strata, living mostly in dingy lanes and hence can be corona carriers, so safety precautions will be an added benefit. It has been observed that some of the people got infection through vegetable vendors, also. Most of the techniques that have been used before the present pandemic will be handy in the present scenario as well. Moreover some produce that include strawberries, spinach, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, potatoes, etc., carry high degree of pesticides in them as compared to the likes of sweet corn, pineapple, onions, papaya, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, kiwi, etc., hence some extra care is required for sanitising the latter lot.
While buying the produce from the vendor, social distancing norms should be followed in letter and spirit. Self-hand sanitisation before and after cleaning and sanitisation of produce is to be ensured by an individual. A good 30 second scrub of all produce under cold water should be given in the beginning. Outer layers of green leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage can be removed before washing as they carry traces of pesticides. Then they can be soaked in a bowl carrying one tea spoon baking soda and one tea spoon table salt mixed water. Soak them for 15-20 minutes and rinse thoroughly with flowing cold water and then place for drying in the sun or shade as moisture can increase the bacterial action. Hard rind produce can be cleaned with a brush. It is not good to clean them with soap or detergent as the chemicals in them can seep in and affect gastrointestinal tract post consumption. Washing with hot water should also be avoided as it can augment the bacterial action too. Just 0.001% potassium permanganate (KMnO4) in water (less than one gram in 1 litre water) can be used as antibacterial agent to clean fruits and vegetables. Moreover it removes pesticides from the surfaces of fruits and veggies, also. Care should be taken to rinse it with cold water up to satisfaction after soaking in the said solution and put for drying as it can cause post processing changes, too. Higher concentration of potassium permanganate is detrimental as it can affect gastrointestinal system, cause nausea, abdominal pain, anemia, swelling of throat and can even damage kidney. Moreover before consuming them it is advisable to wash them again. Moreover, looking at the severity of the situation, raw consumption like salad, chutney, etc., can be avoided.
I am sure above methods of cleaning and sanitisation of fruits and vegetables will be effective in keeping any impending food borne disease and COVID-19 at bay. Moreover, such sanitisation practices must become part of our lifestyle to ward off any food poisoning incident or any food borne illness in future.
(Dr Prashant Thapliyal is Assistant Professor, Army Cadet College, Indian Military Academy, Dehradun.)