Knowing how to properly wash your fresh produce is more important than you might think. You’re probably aware of outbreaks of food poisoning caused by bacteria in salad vegetables and spinach in recent years. Fresh produce may be contaminated by pesticides and herbicides as well. Even organic produce may contain some pesticide residue from spray drift or historic use, even if the producer didn’t use such chemicals. In fact, USDA regulations allow organic farmers to use 25 synthetic pesticides, as well as pesticides of natural origins.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that 38.4 million Americans get sick from food-borne illnesses each year, while more than 128,000 are hospitalized, and more than 3,000 dies. Vulnerable groups, such as babies and young children, pregnant women, older adults, and anyone with a weakened immune system, are particularly at risk.
It’s not just out-of-date or “bad” food that makes us sick either. Increasing outbreaks of food-borne illness are caused by germs, molds, and bacteria on ordinary fruits and vegetables. Most often poor hygiene leads to contamination with E. coli bacteria leading to food poisoning or salmonella.
Fresh produce can be contaminated at many points before it gets to you.
- In the field, fruits and vegetables can be contaminated by animals, harmful substances in the water or soil, or poor hygiene by farm workers.
- Fresh food is handled by many people on its way to the store, increasing opportunities for contamination.
- Poor preparation hygiene or inadequate storage further increase your risk.
How to Properly Wash Produce
So, what can you do to reduce your risk of getting food poisoning and ingesting farming chemicals? Apart from carefully choosing fruits and vegetables which look fresh and clean, with no bruises, mold or signs of damage, experts recommend that all produce is carefully washed and stored properly.
You can take a few simple steps to remove any contamination on your fruits or vegetables before you eat them.
- Wash your hands before and after preparing fresh produce. To make sure your hands are truly clean, use soap (not hand sanitizer) and hot running water for at least 20 seconds.
- Mix a solution of 3-parts water to 1-part white vinegar in a clean sink or bowl, or if you don't want to make a wash we buy this brand and love it!
- Once you’ve mixed the vinegar solution, add your fruits and vegetables to it and let them soak for a few minutes. Then, rinse them clean with running water for a few seconds.
- Even delicate produce like mushrooms and berries can be soaked or sprayed with this vinegar solution. We love to use this spray for things like mushrooms.
- Make sure to thoroughly dry all produce before storing it. Bacteria and other germs love a damp environment. You don’t want to encourage it to grow back on the produce you just cleaned.
- For delicate produce, once it’s been rinsed, allow it to drain in a colander and then spread it in a single layer on a tray or baking sheet lined with paper towels.
Using this method will also save you money. By removing bacteria from produce, it will last longer in your fridge, so you won’t end up wasting as much.
Most of us are careful to wash root vegetables before consuming them, but it’s easy to overlook produce with a rind. After all, we plan on peeling that anyway. However, a knife can easily pick up impurities from the rind and transfer them into the fruit.
And who among us hasn’t given into the belief that the pre-washed veg we bought is clean enough? I know I’ve been guilty of that to get dinner on the table faster. But a new study in Canada found E. coli and other bacteria on an alarming amount of pre-washed and bagged vegetables. So that salad mix you bought should still be washed using the vinegar solution above. In fact, it’s believed the surge in E. coli and other bacteria outbreaks are due to the increase in the amount of pre-cut vegetables and fruits available on the market.
Don’t overlook washing your organic produce either. As I mentioned before, no organic produce can be 100% free of residual pesticides. And there are just as many ways organic produce can be contaminated with bacteria on its way to your market as non-organic produce.
Besides washing your produce properly, here are some other important tips for keeping it free of harmful pollutes:
- Trim any bruised or damaged areas. Throw away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables like lettuce, cabbages, spinach, and
- Use a designated vegetable brush to scrub from produce.
- Use a safe plant-based fruit and vegetable cleaner. Here is my personal favorite.
- Dry with a clean cloth or kitchen towel.
- Take a good look at your own food safety processes. Your kitchen can be a potential source of contamination. Wash down all cutting boards and counter tops with hot soapy water. Wash sponges or cloths often in hot soapy water (preferably in the dishwasher or washing machine). Rinse and hang them up to dry after use as bacteria thrive in moist environments.
- Wash your countertops and cutting boards both before and after working with produce so that no other food is polluted. Bacteria can be transferred to the knife, cutting board, countertop, even the surface of the fruit bowl or refrigerator crisper. This is my favorite cleaner for that.
By taking these simple precautions, you can protect yourself and your family from food-borne illness and toxic chemicals easily, safely, and inexpensively.