Fresh produce often comes straight out of the ground, so it’s born dirty. Though it looks clean by the time it gets to the store, don’t assume that it is. Even organic produce can be covered in bacteria and other contaminants. Here’s what consumers need to know about the cleanliness of produce and how to make it safer to eat.
How Dirty Is Produce?
It all depends. Each piece of produce that ends up in a shopping bag took a different journey to the store. Fruits and vegetables are often exposed to rodents; unwashed hands; bugs; airborne germs; and particulates, fertilizer, and more as they travel.
Moreover, most produce is exposed to pesticides. The Environmental Working Group's 2022 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce listed strawberries and spinach as the two top produce items that contain the highest levels of pesticide contamination. Next on the list were kale, collard and mustard greens, nectarines, apples, grapes, and varieties of peppers.
Try to buy produce locally. Shorter shipping distances mean that contamination is less likely.
It’s best to assume that the fresh fruits and vegetables brought home are pretty filthy. Though this may make some people wary of eating store-bought produce, there’s no need to avoid it. Produce can be made safe to eat.
How Can Consumers Make Produce Safe?
The safest way to ensure that raw food won’t cause an illness is to wash it, and then cook it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The heat from cooking can kill any bacteria that might remain after washing.
Also, try to buy produce locally. Shorter shipping distances mean that contamination is less likely. Of course, the safest produce is homegrown, garden-to-table food since consumers know exactly what the fruits and vegetables were exposed to.
What Is the Right Way to Wash Produce?
Produce should be cleaned as soon as possible so this step won’t be forgotten later. Plus, clean produce won’t contaminate the refrigerator or countertops.
First, start with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. Also, make sure your kitchen surfaces, like your sink and countertops, have been cleaned and sanitized.
Once the surfaces are clean, remove the "extra parts" of the produce. Remove the outer leaves from lettuce, the loose, outer skins of onions, and eyes from potatoes, for example. Also, discard berries or leaves that are damaged.
Next, scrub the fruits and vegetables under lukewarm running water. Vegetable brushes are nice, but they are not required—the running water and clean hands are fine, according to the Colorado State Extension Office. Conversely, a brush may help get the dirt off of root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and turnips.
Do Consumers Need a Special Cleanser for their Produce?
The CDC, US Department of Agriculture, and federal Food and Drug Administration don’t recommend washing produce in anything other than water. That means consumers can skip those fancy veggie washes seen in stores or the well-intentioned homemade cleaning recipes posted on the internet. Fruits and vegetables are porous. They can absorb the washes, and possibly cause a sickness or alter the taste of the food. Besides, these washes haven’t been proven any more effective than water.
When the first batch of produce is cleaned, place it into a clean colander while the other items are washed.
What About Produce with Inedible Peels?
Yes, even if the plan is to remove the banana, avocado, melon, orange, grapefruit, or lemon peel, the produce should be washed. Hands or knives touching the peel can contaminate the fruit underneath.
Moreover, washing bananas when they first come into the kitchen can banish any fruit-fly eggs that tagged along.
Does Organic Produce Need to Be Washed?
Even if the produce has never been touched by pesticides, there is a good chance it has been touched by dirty hands, rodents, and bugs. So, give organic produce a good wash, too.
How About Pre-washed Packaged Produce?
The CDC says that food that’s labeled as washed doesn’t need further cleaning, but many consumers do so anyway. In 2021, eighteen people became sick with listeria after eating Dole pre-packaged salads. There have been other recalls of contaminated pre-packaged produce in the last few years, as well.
What Happens if the Produce Isn’t Washed?
At the very least, consumers will ingest the waxy preservatives the store uses to keep the produce looking fresh. At the worst, they could consume pesticides or dangerous bacteria.
Around 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, and 3,000 die, from foodborne diseases. While a lot of times foodborne illnesses come from animal products, produce is often contaminated, too. For example, in early 2022, a recall was issued over contaminated baby spinach. Four people needed to be hospitalized after fifteen became ill.
Some common food contaminants include Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Norovirus, and Listeria monocytogenes. They can cause diarrhea, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fever, hallucinations, paralysis, and death. While most people will just suffer what is thought of as a "stomach flu" when exposed to these contaminants, they are particularly dangerous to children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.
So, the best bet for healthy eating is to always wash fruits and vegetables. While it doesn’t always get rid of every contaminant, it’s the best line of defense against bacteria and pesticides.