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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Food Safety: When do you wash your produce?

There's an interesting discussion going on at the Fanatic Cook blog. It began with Honduran cantaloupes that are associated with a Salmonella outbreak in the US.

Of course, produce grows outdoors in the dirt. Animals poop outdoors in the dirt. Contamination from passing birds, livestock, or vermin is always a possiblity. When I buy a melon directly from the farmer, it is dirty. Before I slice it, I give that melon a good rinse and scrub-down in the sink. Afterwards, I give the sink a soapy scrub-down to clean it. This keeps the dirt, and the germs in the dirt, off the counter, cutting board, and knife, and out of the food.

But when I buy a melon at the supermarket, it looks as clean as if I had just washed it myself. So I don't wash it. I rarely wash apples, oranges, or tomatoes. I have never washed a banana. Have you? Even though you know that, every time you grab a piece of produce, you could get invisible germs on your hands and spread them all over the kitchen? Why aren't you and your family sick every single day? Is this like playing Russian Roulette with vegetables?

Well, maybe. Most tragedies happen after a whole string of things has gone wrong. And there are many opportunities between the field and the plate to prevent a food-borne illness.

Most soil germs are not dangerous. But fertilizer/manure or irrigation water could be contaminated and spread germs in the field. The dirty-looking recirculated wash water they use in packing plants could be OK if they treat it properly, or it could be putting germs right back on the potatoes. Workers could be protecting the food, or contaminating it if they don't wash their hands. And you never know who has handled the produce in the grocery store.

Knowing all that, I'm responsible for the food I choose and how I handle it. I follow a few simple rules.

  • Vegetable washes haven't proven to be any more effective than plain, clean water at removing bacteria, so I stick with plain water, and scrub, rub, agitate, or spray.
  • Keep the sink and the scrubbers clean.
  • There is no way to remove 100% of the germs on foods. So try not to let the germs grow. Eat, cook, or refrigerate things soon after you cut them.
  • If those watermelon slices start to look "different", it's time to toss them. Avoid damaged produce. Don't eat rotten stuff.
  • This summer, I'm sure I'll still be eating unwashed vegetables straight off the vine.
  • I'm not going to start washing bananas.
  • I'll think again about prewashed mini-carrots, but I'll probably keep trusting the Jolly Green Giant, the distribution network, and my local grocery store.

FIT vegetable wash powder (Citric acid, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium carbonate & magnesium carbonate, Grapefruit Oil extract) was developed by Proctor and Gamble, which then sold the license to Healthpro Brands. It is distributed to growers, packers, and shippers by Caruso Foods

According to the Cornell Department of Agriculture, no-one knows how much food-borne illness originates on the farm.

Bleaching produce is only recommeded in extreme situations, such as flooding. Leafy vegetables, fleshy vegetables (tomatoes, summer squash, peppers) and berries cannot be adequately disinfected. Other contaminated vegetables can be cleaned in fresh water and then soaked in a very weak chlorine solution for 15 to 20 minutes.

Did you hear A&P sued a couple of its former stock clerks for making a video in which they licked produce and put it back on the shelves?