An analysis by a food safety specialist on the most effective method for cleaning fruits and vegetables

by Josh
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Food safety: When you get home from the grocery store and start sorting and organizing your haul – do you also wash your produce before putting it away? I’ve always been one to rinse, soak, and lightly dry fruits and vegetables before storing them. Still, after watching so many videos online suggesting that you need to clean your produce with vinegar or store-bought or DIY detergent, I’m starting to wonder if really getting rid of all the dirt (and potential bugs!) in the best possible way.

In search of information, I reached out to Michelle Smith, Ph.D., senior analyst in the FDA’s Division of food safety. With 25 years in the business, Smith was able to share some vital thoughts on the matter. Read on for answers to three common questions.

Why do you need to wash your products?

“Fresh fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy and nutritious diet, however, harmful bacteria that may be in the soil or water where the crops are grown can come into contact with the fruits and vegetables and contaminate them,” says Smith, making it extremely important wash your products when you get home from the store.

Bacteria can find their way into produce at the point of harvest, during storage, or even during preparation, Smith adds. Additionally, because produce is often eaten raw, it does not have the crucial cooking step that can destroy harmful bacteria. “That’s why it’s important to wash produce before you give it to yourself or your family,” she says. “Even if you don’t plan to eat the skin, it’s still important to wash produce first so that dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the surface when peeling or slicing produce.”

food safety

How do you wash fruits and vegetables?

Smith explains that there is actually a correct procedure that is not only the safest but also the most effective way to wash fruits and vegetables. Despite what the videos tell you, using formulas or products to wash produce can be potentially harmful. The best way to safely wash fruits and vegetables is extremely simple: All you need is water.

“Thoroughly washing fruit and vegetable surfaces under clean running water should reduce any potential soil, residue or microbial contamination,” says Smith. “We do not recommend using vinegar or store-bought detergents to wash fruits and vegetables. Think about it: The product is porous. Soaps and household detergents can be absorbed by fruits and vegetables and can make you sick, which is what we try to avoid in the first place when washing.”

Smith adds that the safety of store-bought detergent residues has not been evaluated, and their effectiveness in removing microbial contaminants has not been tested or standardized.

For washing firmer fruits like melons and cucumbers, Smith shares that a fruit brush is a good tool. Simply scrub and rinse under water. “After washing, you can dry the product with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce the number of bacteria that may be on the surface,” she says.

How can I make my products last longer?

If you want to extend the life of your fruits and vegetables, Smith has these “smarter shopping” tips:

  • Choose products that are not battered or damaged.
  • If you buy pre-cut, bagged, or packaged produce, choose only those that are chilled or surrounded by ice.
  • Avoid contamination of products during handling and preparation. For example, hide and store produce separately from meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Start and finish with clean hands when preparing fresh produce. This means washing for at least 20 seconds before and after handling.
  • Do not wash products that have already been pre-washed. There is some concern that washing at home may introduce more risks, Smith says, so additional washing for bags labeled “pre-washed” or “triple-washed” is not entirely necessary.

Another thing to consider is proper storage, Smith says, which can affect both the quality and safety of your food. He recommends storing perishable fruits and vegetables (such as strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms) in a clean refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Make sure to refrigerate any produce that is pre-cut or pre-packaged! If you are not sure if your items can be refrigerated, ask a grocer for help.

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