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FDA launches project to keep herbs and guacamole safe for consumers

The FDA is taking a proactive look at these two frequently consumed food groupings: fresh herbs and processed avocado.
/ Source: TODAY

Whipping up some homemade guac? Before mashing the avocado and cilantro together, you may want to take a few extra steps to clean and prepare these foods — otherwise, they might not be safe for snacking.

In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which aims to keep our food supply safe from food-borne contamination, began taking a proactive look at these two frequently consumed food groupings: fresh herbs and processed avocado. Because these foods are usually consumed raw, they're particularly vulnerable to bacterial growth (since cooking reduces or eliminates harmful bacteria).

This large-scale project, which is expected to continue for 18 months and involves collecting 1,600 samples of each category, is balanced between U.S.-grown and imported products.

The goal is to focus on the rates of contamination, and then issue voluntary recalls for U.S.-grown products, or refuse entry for imported products. An additional goal is to help identify any common factors possibly linking contaminated samples — an important issue to go beyond detection — and address the potential reasons for the contamination.

What's wrong with fresh herbs?

Over about a decade, the FDA reported nine food outbreaks linked to basil, parsley and cilantro, resulting in nearly 2,700 illnesses and 84 hospitalizations. These popular herbs (and all fresh herbs consumed raw) might put consumers at risk because they are eaten without cooking.

These herbs are mixed into a variety of salads, main and side dishes, often without the consumer’s knowledge. Early results show that out of the 35 U.S.-grown samples tested, none tested positive for contamination. From the 104 imported samples tested, three were positive.

The FDA emphasizes no definitive conclusions can be made about herb contamination until all of the information is collected, validated and analyzed. While these numbers sound low, they are only the “reported” cases, and the likely incidence is much higher.

Avocados are good for your health, if they're prepared correctly.

Processed avocado is more than just guacamole, and includes freshly cut avocados, refrigerated and frozen, and sometimes packaged. Like fresh herbs, these are often eaten without a “kill step” — cooking to reduce or eliminate bacteria.

Processed avocado can further create a potential risk because of the high moisture content and lack of an “acid” environment, both of which can boost bacterial growth. Over a 10-year period, there were 12 outbreaks of food-borne illnesses related to these products, associated with 523 reported illnesses and 23 hospitalizations — clearly an issue to address with the increasing popularity of avocado consumption for its multiple health benefits.

What can consumers do now?

While the FDA will continue to provide quarterly updates on their findings and a comprehensive report in about two years, here are some steps consumers can take in the meantime to minimize food-borne illness while consuming herbs, avocados and other raw foods.

  • Wash all of your fresh herbs thoroughly, particularly when using them raw — even if the package says they are “washed.” Organic doesn’t mean “clean,” so wash these as well.
  • Try soaking the herbs in a bowl of water for a few minutes, then rinse under running water. Prepared “produce cleaners” are not necessary.
  • Use a clean knife when cutting avocados, and store and refrigerate unused portions quickly.
  • Consume leftover homemade guacamole within 72 hours, and refrigerate within three hours after serving. Keep extra serving spoons handy, to avoid “double dippers” of chips and veggies that can boost bacterial contamination.
  • Read the label on processed and packaged avocado products for best by dates. Remember that once you open the container, that date is meaningless. Like the fresh versions, finish the refrigerated leftovers within three days.

Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.