Washing Your Produce is an Important Step in Enjoying It
by Evan DeMarco on Dec 13, 2022
Spoiled by bagged spinach and promises of triple-washed salad greens? If you’re not washing your salad greens and the rest of your produce, you’re unnecessarily exposing yourself to germs and viruses. As E.coli outbreaks frequently remind us, food safety isn’t just for meat and dairy products. You also need to watch out for the pathogens that hitch a ride on your fruits and vegetables.
While washing your produce won’t get rid of all germs, it will go a long way toward protecting yourself from illness. Plus, you’ll get rid of dirt and any insects that might be hiding in your food.
What’s lurking in your produce?
One of the most common foodborne pathogens is E.coli, bacteria which is often found in undercooked meat. However, E.coli can also be found on some produce. According to this study, “Vegetables can be contaminated with E. coli at any point from pre- to postharvest. This bacterium is able to survive in many environmental conditions due to a variety of mechanisms, such as adhesion to surfaces and internalization in fresh products, thereby limiting the usefulness of conventional processing and chemical sanitizing methods used by the food industry.” Plus, the more people who handle your produce from farm to the store to your table, the more it’s exposed to pathogens.
Leafy greens are some of the most common produce to be affected by E.coli. “This contamination may originate from manure, soil, sewage, surface water, or wildlife; it may also occur during washing, slicing, soaking, packing, and food preparation.” E.coli causes diarrhea, vomiting and other unpleasant side effects.
E.coli isn’t the only pathogen you’ll find in your produce, however. Listeria, which is especially harmful to children, pregnant people and seniors, is often found in outbreaks. “L. monocytogenes is widely present in agricultural production environments, and it is implicated in the contamination of fresh crop produce. Most recent listeriosis outbreaks associated with fresh produce are attributed to the crop growing environment, post-harvest processing and retailing.”
According to the CDC, salmonella is another common produce risk. It’s found in meat and eggs, but can also live on fruits and vegetables. Salmonella causes stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fever.
Finally, insects and dirt can hide in leafy and layered produce—typically not a health risk, but still mighty unpleasant.
Wash your fruits and vegetables
As you can see, your produce carries some risk. Even though outbreaks are relatively rare, given the sheer amount of fruits and vegetables we eat, it’s important that you reduce that risk as much as possible.
The first study further notes that “current industrial sanitizing and washing treatments of fruits and vegetables (e.g., triple washing of prepackaged leafy greens) do not guarantee the total elimination of pathogens.” That is, even though your bagged salad says it’s clean, there’s still a chance it could make you ill.
Fortunately, washing your produce is simple. All you need to do is rinse it with running water, and then dry it with a clean towel or paper towel. Do this for all of your produce—even the kind with inedible thick skin. Germs can still spread when you cut into that avocado or cantaloupe.
The produce you pick makes a difference, too. When browsing at the store or farmer’s market, look for produce with bruising or cuts. They allow germs to enter the fruit. Contaminated or spoiled produce should be discarded, too.
For delicate produce, like herbs and leafy greens, rinse with water from a spray bottle. Hardier produce, like potatoes, can be scrubbed with a brush. Whatever you do, don’t use soap: excess soap on produce can also cause gastrointestinal distress.
Finally, don’t forget to wash your hands and clean your work surface before peeling, slicing and chopping your fresh produce. Germs from your hands can transfer to the produce and cause illness, even if you washed the fruits and vegetables beforehand.
The bottom line
While washing your produce won’t get rid of every pathogen, it can make a big difference. Furthermore, there’s no need to fear produce in general. Although outbreaks do happen, you can reduce that risk by thoroughly washing all produce and checking for food recalls periodically.
Fruits and vegetables are a major part of our diet, and provide nutrients that grains, dairy and meat cannot. By washing and drying your produce, you’re cutting out unnecessary risk and ensuring your diet is as healthy as possible.