Fresh fruits and vegetables are sometimes contaminated with harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses (food poisoning) when ingested. Produce can become contaminated at the farm from harmful substances in the soil or water supply, or fecal contamination from animals. In addition, contamination can occur when bacteria is transferred from a person’s hands or from contact with other contaminated foods and transferred to the produce. Just think of how many people handle your food before you buy it, which provides plenty of opportunities for contamination.
The Utah State University estimates that a tomato will have been handled by approximately 20 people before a person purchases it from the grocery store. Because you cannot tell if your produce is contaminated, it is important to always follow good food safety practices to reduce your chances of getting a foodborne illness, and that includes washing your fruits and vegetables.
Buying Fresh Fruits And Vegetables
You can reduce the chance that the fruits and vegetables you buy are contaminated by purchasing wisely. Look for produce that is in good condition, and avoid produce that is bruised or damaged. Once produce is cut, it is more susceptible to spoiling and contamination, so only buy pre-cut produce that is in a refrigerator or packed in ice. Place produce away from raw meats in the cart to avoid contamination.
Which Fruits And Vegetables Should You Wash?
You should wash all of your raw produce before cutting, peeling, cooking or eating it. You should even wash produce with peels or rinds, even if you will not be eating it. The reason why produce with peels and rinds must be washed is because bacteria on the peel or rind can inadvertently be transferred to the eatable part of the food when cutting or peeling.
What About Packaged And Prewashed Produce?
According to the FDA, you do not need to wash packaged produce that is labeled as prewashed. The contents of these packaged produce items are meant to be ready-to eat after they have been purchased. If you do decide to wash prewashed, packaged produce, use the same washing methods recommended for unpackaged fruits and vegetables. Be sure to store packaged produce in the refrigerator.
How To Wash Produce
You can effectively wash your produce using the following three steps:
- Cut out damaged or bruised areas.
- Run cold faucet water over the produce while rubbing the produce with your hands to remove dirt (place grapes, cherries and other small produce in a colander to wash).
- Dry produce with clean paper towels, which may remove more bacteria.
Special Washing Directions For Leafy Greens
Before washing leafy greens such as lettuce or cabbage, remove and discard the outer leafs. Then, rinse the lettuce under cold running water until there is no evidence of dirt on the greens. You can use clean paper towels to dry the vegetables.
Special Washing Directions For Hard-Skinned Produce
For hard skin produce, such as melons, cucumbers and potatoes, be sure to scrub the outer shell with a clean vegetable brush. Do this while washing the produce under cold, running tap water. Pay special attention when scrubbing to remove dirt in nooks and cracks in the skin of the produce.
Special Directions For Sprouts
The FDA warns that sprouts can be contaminated with Salmonella, Listeria, or E. coli. These bacteria are not removed by washing. Sprouts must be thoroughly cooked to kill the bacteria. Pregnant women, young children, elderly people and people with compromised immune systems should avoid eating raw or lightly cooked sprouts, according to the FDA.
Are Cleansers Better Than Water?
You can buy special cleaners designed for washing your produce at many grocery stores. While these cleaners are effective, they are not needed, and do not necessarily work any better than plain water. Clean, cold faucet water is all that is needed to clean your produce. If you do not have access to clean tap water, you can use bottled distilled water instead.
How To Store Produce
Store all produce separately from raw meats. Refrigerating produce can help reduce the rate at which they spoil. You may notice that the skin on bananas will turn brown during refrigeration; this is just cosmetic and does not affect the inner fruit. All cut or peeled produce must be refrigerated within two hours in a 40ºF or below refrigerator.
If you are unsure of the temperature of your refrigerator, you can use a thermometer to find out. If your refrigerator is not cold enough, adjust the temperature control. Cut or peeled produce that is left out of the refrigerator for longer than two hours should be discarded because it may be contaminated with bacteria.
Food Preparation Safety
After washing your produce, it is still important to follow safe food preparation guidelines to avoid re-contamination. Use the following three guidelines when preparing your produce:
- Wash your hands with warm water and soap before handling produce.
- Cut and peel produce on a clean cutting board, using clean utensils.
- Keep produce away from raw meat. Do not use the same cutting board for raw meat and your produce.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. When you follow proper washing, storage and preparation guidelines, you can minimize the risk of foodborne illness.