Have you ever wondered why the experts giving advice on a specific subject can’t all agree? In the case of a procedure like how to wash produce, you would think there would be a right way and a wrong way, or at least that all the recommendations would follow along the same lines. This is important to me. I see people in stores munching on apples and mothers bagging up grapes to give their toddlers as they shop. On the Food Network television cooking shows, many of the cooks use berries directly from the unopened store packaging without even the pretense of rinsing them, and mushrooms receive nothing more than a cursory dab with a damp towel (usually only on one side). Bagged salads are just dumped in the serving bowl. I can’t be the only one bothered by this!
Recently there have been three produce recalls in our local grocery stores from E. coli contamination. Produce shopping is getting very scary, so I spent some time last night trying to find out what the current recommended procedure is for washing produce. Mostly what I found were more contradictions. Most sources seem to agree that ALL produce should be washed before being eaten, even if it is going to be peeled… and that includes melons and even bananas. They talk about scrubbing potatoes with a brush but advise gently rinsing berries… which makes sense considering that berries are more fragile than potatoes. But what about the bacteria? If melons and bananas have to be washed before they are peeled, and potatoes need to be scrubbed with a brush, how can berries that are only gently rinsed or mushrooms dabbed at with a cloth be considered safe?
Everyone seems to agree that certain types of E. coli can’t be removed, regardless of how vigorously the fruit or vegetable is washed… also that washing will only remove surface bacteria, and not the bacteria film that forms when bacteria has been left on the produce for a while. Then there’s the question of the bacteria that can’t be removed because electrical charges make it cling to the produce. Or how about this… supposedly if fruits and vegetables are sprayed or soaked with water that is colder than they are, the bacteria you’re trying to wash off can actually be absorbed right into the produce.
So in light of all these disgusting facts, what do these experts want us to do? Here are the most current guidelines and information I could find.
1. Rinse all produce under running tap water. Soaking produce in water is not effective. Running water and scrubbing with your fingers or a brush is necessary to wash the bacteria away.
2. Produce with rinds, grooves, or waxy skin should be scrubbed with a brush under running water. This includes melons, cucumbers, citrus fruits, bananas, potatoes, squash, etc.
3. Discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables like lettuce or cabbage, rinse under running water, and pat dry or use a spinner. Advice on bagged, pre-washed salad greens varies from using without washing to giving the greens a thorough rinsing.
4. Sprouts are a special case because the seeds themselves are often contaminated with E. coli. Even home-grown sprouts could be contaminated because there is no way of removing the contamination if it has gotten inside the seed.
5. Grapes and blueberries should be rinsed with running water, preferably from a sprayer. One source actually advised scrubbing each grape with a paper towel under running water!!!!!
6. Berries and mushrooms… some sources still advise dabbing at mushrooms and splashing small amounts of water on berries. Other sources advise rinsing both and debunk the idea that sogginess will result.
7. Wash and cut produce before using, not before storing, because if there is bacteria present, the cut surfaces are more susceptible to bacteria growth.
8. Don’t wash produce with detergents or bleach. Most sources (except the ones selling the product) advise against produce washes, even the homemade ones.
9. Lastly, be sure that the produce you buy is fresh. Produce that is marked down because it is bruised or almost past its prime is no bargain because it is much more prone to bacteria contamination than fresh produce.
So here’s my question: What are we supposed to do with all of this scary and conflicting information? I’ll continue to rinse — and rinse — and rinse — produce like lettuce, berries, and grapes, the same way I do now… although I doubt that I will start scrubbing items I peel (like bananas) before I eat them. I’d love to hear how you all handle this question… how do you wash the produce you buy?