While teaching our Food Service Manager Certification and Food Safety classes we get a lot of questions regarding produce and foodborne illnesses. It always surprises me that there are so many questions regarding produce and always think personally, that fresh produce should be considered healthy and not to be feared as something to cause us to get ill.
Unfortunately, the statistics prove otherwise and that we should be very cautious with our produce. Here in the United States, about 1 in 6 Americans get a foodborne illness each year. That translates to about 48 million people a year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 128,000 hospitalizations and about 3,000 deaths as a result. The CDC also reports that on statistics based on the years 1998-2008, that 1 in 5 foodborne illnesses are attributable to “leafy greens.” That’s 20 percent.
The best thing that can be done to prevent foodborne illness from leafy greens and other produce is wash them properly. We always get asked in class if it would be better to buy one of those produce washes to wash the produce? We always answer that as per The Food and Drug Administration recommendation, rinsing under water a little bit warmer than the produce itself as sufficient. Based on my experience, I believe that washing with a vinegar solution or a lemon juice solution might be better. I remember teaching a class once at a military base and they were told to wash their produce including apples with a bleach solution of 100 parts per million. That didn’t sound good to me as that equals sanitizer solution. Detergent or bleach solutions are not recommended for use to clean produce as the skin of fruits and vegetables are porous and can absorb the soap or bleach according to the FDA.
Does washing produce kill bacteria like ecoli? Not really … cooking does. Washing might reduce the amount of bacteria, but it won’t kill the bacteria if it’s on a surface, nor will it kill what might have entered into the produce.
TIP: Wash produce before cutting and preparation, but not before storage if you can help it as this does speed up the spoilage process.
If you think about it, Mother Nature helps us with food safety. For example, we peel off the outer layers of leafy vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, and the skin on onions and even peel (most times) potatoes and thus remove the outer layer where the dirt and potential bacteria lay.
TIP: Wash your green leafy vegetables like pre-cut lettuce and ready to eat spinach at home as well as in your professional operation, even if it’s labeled, “pre-washed three times.” Many recalls are associated with these products.
Does washing your produce get rid of pesticides? No. Remember, your fruits and vegetables are porous and you might be able to wash off the pesticides on the surface, but if they are inside the fruit or vegetable, you can’t. The best way to avoid pesticides on your fruits or produce is to buy organic.
What foods have the most pesticides?
Recent statistics show that the following are the foods with the most pesticides on them.
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot Peppers
- Sweet bell peppers
15 foods with the least pesticides are found to be:
- Sweet peas – frozen
- Sweet potatoes
The USDA and FDA are in the process of setting up stronger supervision and stricter standards for growing, harvesting, packing and hold of fruits and vegetables that are to be eaten raw. The rules will increase the standards of growing, harvesting, packing and holding fruits and vegetables. It will also “increase vigilance during irrigation and washing of produce, worker hygiene, cleanliness of materials used in growing soils such as fertilizers and manure, management of animals that could enter crop fields and contribute contamination, and sanitation of processing equipment.” I just wish they would make it mandatory by law for the farmers to provide porta potties to those picking the crops.