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Simple measures make food safer

Mother’s admonition to wash hands often and well was sage advice.

Her wisdom is most often cited as the first line of defense during flu season, but this week, we can recommend putting it to good use in the kitchen.

The Denton County Health Department on Tuesday confirmed three additional cases of cyclosporiasis, the foodborne illness spreading through North Texas, bringing the number to eight.

Tarrant and Dallas counties have also reported more than 10 cases each. Symptoms of cyclosporiasis include diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, gas, nausea and vomiting, lasting anywhere from three days to a couple of months.

The disease is caused by the parasite cyclospora cayetanensis, which contaminates food, particularly fruits and vegetables, although health officials have been unable to determine the exact source of this outbreak.

In addition to the cases close to home, officials said there was a wave of cyclosporiasis in the Midwest last month that sickened 45 people in Iowa and 35 in Nebraska.

The illness occurs when food is contaminated with fecal matter, officials said, and the department is recommending a thorough washing of produce prior to consumption.

Sarah McKinney, a public information officer with the Denton County Health Department, advised people to wash — not just rinse — all fruits and vegetables. She also suggested washing one’s hands frequently.

The health department encourages anyone afflicted with any of the symptoms to see a doctor as it could help investigators get to the root of the disease.

McKinney had a few other tips for those of us who don’t have Mom handy to supervise our shopping and police our kitchen prep areas.

First, she said, consumers should always avoid buying produce that’s bruised or damaged. If they select pre-cut produce, she said, it should be displayed in a refrigerated container or stored on ice. When bagging grocery items, she advised, put produce in separate bags, keeping it away from meat, poultry and seafood.

Perishable produce should be refrigerated at 40 degrees or less, and pre-cut or peeled items should always be refrigerated, McKinney said. In the refrigerator, she said, produce should be stored separately from meat, poultry and seafood.

When it comes to preparation, Mother really did know best — McKinney said frequent hand washing is a must. Always start with clean hands (wash at least 20 seconds in warm, soapy water), and make sure all cutting boards, utensils, dishes and knives are washed with hot, soapy water prior to use.

Inspect produce carefully and remove any damaged or bruised areas, and wash the produce well under running water, she said. Items that will be peeled still should be washed thoroughly, and make sure your knife and other utensils are washed well between uses.

Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend using commercial washes, McKinney said, but a produce brush can help clean some items more thoroughly.

Although the source of this cyclosporiasis outbreak has yet to be determined, it pays to be careful, and we appreciate the Denton County Health Department’s advice.

Mom may not have put it just like this, but in our view, when it comes to family food safety, cleaner is always better.