Wash Your Veggies (And Fruits)

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

UConn Extension Educator/Food Safety

In recent months I have been reminded again that there are still many eaters and handlers of fresh fruits and vegetables who still do not take the risk of foodborne illness from these foods very seriously.  Despite the fact that produce accounts for nearly half of all foodborne illnesses and 23% of deaths from foodborne illness, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control in an 2013 article published in the journal, Emerging Infection Diseases.  This report looked at all outbreaks during 1998-2008 for which there was a food item and pathogen identified during the investigation of the outbreak (often, it may be impossible to trace an outbreak to a specific food—especially if fewer people are affected or the pathogen has a long incubation period).

food-Illnesses-deathsFor comparison, it can be noted that meat and poultry accounted for 22% of illnesses and 29% of deaths, while dairy products accounted for 20% of illnesses and 15% of deaths and seafood accounted for 6.1% of illnesses and 6.4% of deaths.

Even though these statistics are pretty telling, many are still in denial.  In restaurants, it is not uncommon for a dinner salad to be composed of bagged lettuces that are opened and tossed onto a plate—seemingly with little attention paid to what that lettuce looks like.  I have made it a practice of picking out all the dark and slimy stuff and showing my server…whether at a Connecticut shoreline drive-in or an upscale “natural foods” place in upstate New York with a national reputation.   Generally it results in a “comped” salad, but really, I am hoping against hope that my actions just might change the way that operation makes salads.

On two occasions in the last several months I have seen fresh vegetables dropped on the floor by guys who were loading supermarket shelves.  In one case, a bunch of cilantro fell on the floor; I picked it up to show the employee; he said, “put it on my cart and I will take care of it”; then when I turned around, he was putting it on the sales shelf…

So, two lessons to take away from these experiences:  first, if you see something, say something.  Don’t accept brown, slimy salads anymore.  Send them back.  Tell the supermarket that these practices are unacceptable.  But, also, spread the word that it is important to wash your fruits and vegetables.  For years, even in foodservice and retail, produce was not considered to be a potentially hazardous food.  There were few illnesses associated with fruits and veggies:  at least few that made the headlines.  However, changes in how food is grown, shipped, handled and changes in the bugs that cause illness as well, mean that we need to pay better attention to how we handle fresh produce.  Remember, almost 50% of all foodborne illnesses that can be connected to a food, are connected to produce.

Some simple steps can reduce the risk that you and your family and, if you work in foodservice or a supermarket, your customers, will get sick from the fruits and vegetables we eat.

  • First, make sure the preparation environment is clean.  Use a clean sink, cutting board, colander, knife, and CLEAN HANDS.
  • The vegetables most likely to be associated with an illness are leafy greens, herbs, and sprouts.  If you purchase heads of lettuce or unpackaged herbs or spinach or other greens, be sure to wash them well just before eating.  (Washing before storage may result in too much moisture and quicker spoilage-if you choose to wash before refrigerating, be sure to dry produce thoroughly.)
  • Keep in mind that sprouts continue to be a regular source of outbreaks due to pathogens that are actually in the seeds.  Washing cannot fix this.  If you or a family member have a compromised immune system, steer clear of sprouts.
  • There is a lot of debate about the need to wash greens labeled, “pre-washed” or “triple washed.”  Some scientists say it is riskier to re-wash these greens as you may contaminate them during the process in your own kitchen.  But, if there are signs that the quality is beginning to wane, I always remove the bad stuff and rewash what remains.
  • To wash greens or herbs, either wash each leaf under running water or fill a bowl with water and swish the greens, emptying the water and rewashing at least once, or until the water is clean.  Do not let the greens sit in the water for any length of time, however.
  • If there are signs of decay on softer vegetables or fruits such as tomatoes, summer squash, scallions, or grapes, throw them out.  You may cut small spots off of potatoes, apples, or hard squashes before using. Spots of decay can be an entry point for the bad bugs.
  • Wash all other fruits and vegetables (whether you are eating the skin or not) just before eating, using water that is about the same temperature as the product you are washing: cold if refrigerated, room temperature if not.
  • Wash those with rinds with a clean scrub brush.
  • Do NOT use dish detergent or soap—they are not formulated for use on food and produce can absorb them during the washing process.
  • There is no need to use special veggie washes.  Scrubbing and rinsing removes most microbes.
  • Once veggies and fruits are cut open, they must be refrigerated.
  • Be especially careful with greens, herbs, spinach, tomatoes, scallions, berries, and melon of all kinds (due to its’ low acid content, melon is a fruit that supports the growth of microbes that cause illness) as these foods have been associated with illness more often.  However, anything eaten raw should be handled with care.

Finally, do not assume that fruits and veggies from your home garden or local farmer are safer than produce from large farms in California or imported from Mexico.  Outbreaks have been associated with produce from all sources.  Contamination can occur in the field (water, wildlife, birds, pets, manure and compost), during harvest and sales (people, rodents, water, packing house environments) and during preparation.

For more information on safe handling of fresh fruits and vegetables, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271 for more information.