Every year fresh foods contaminated with bacteria have caused many people to become ill or even die and have provided many scary news stories. The latest cases of food borne illness from fresh produce appear to be linked to cantaloupe. Undoubtedly many cases of illness caused from contaminated fresh foods go unreported. Salmonella, and E. coli bacteria are common contaminants but other deadly bacteria can also be present on fresh produce.
Whether you are a home gardener, buy from the farmers market or purchase your fresh produce in a big brand store you should know how to clean and store fresh produce to prevent serious illness or even death.
Organic doesn’t mean safe
It’s important to realize that when produce and other foods are sold as organic it does not mean you can consume them without first properly washing them. Organic produce is often fertilized with manure and compost, both of which can contain deadly bacteria that could contaminate produce grown in it. While organic may mean it’s free of pesticides you could still be harmed from bacterial contamination. That doesn’t mean all organic produce is contaminated with bacteria it just means that the smart consumer will wash all fresh produce, regardless of how it is grown.
Even the best grower, organic or conventional, cannot control all sources of contamination that nature can throw at them. Birds and other animals visiting a plot can “sprinkle” on contamination as can the strong run off of storm water or other things. And after it’s picked, fresh produce can still be contaminated by dirty containers, dirty hands or other sources of contamination. Even if it’s grown it your own backyard under what you think are ideal conditions its smart to wash all fresh produce before eating it.
One note: the FDA says it is fine to eat produce that says it has been washed and is ready to eat and that is in a sealed bag without washing it again.
How to wash fresh produce
The USDA and many other researchers have found that you don’t need anything to wash produce with other than clean running water. They found that soaps, vinegar, salt water and other concoctions aren’t necessary and don’t do a better job of removing bacterial contamination if proper washing procedures are followed. (Salt water soaks may help the remove insects from produce however). A vegetable scrub brush is recommended for some types of produce.
Many types of vegetables and fruits stay fresh longer if they are washed just before eating or cooking with them. If refrigerated before washing the produce should be put in a bag or container to avoid contaminating the refrigerator. Remove roots, stems, outer leaves and other unwanted plant parts before washing. You may want to wash things like potatoes and carrots both before and after peeling them.
Make sure the kitchen sink is clean if you are going to put any produce in it. Most kitchen sinks have as much bacteria as your toilet unless they are freshly scrubbed. Before you begin washing any produce wash your kitchen sink, counter tops, cutting board and any utensils you will use with hot soapy water and then rinse well.
Wooden cutting boards are another good source of bacterial contamination, metal, plastic or glass cutting boards are safer. Keep raw meat or fluids from meat packages away from fresh produce and thoroughly wash anything raw meat has touched before using it on produce. Soak your vegetable scrub brush in hot soapy water with a little household bleach added, then rinse and allow to air dry after each use.
- Store unwashed greens in the refrigerator crisper or vegetable drawer in a bag or container until ready to wash and use.
- Remove outer leaves from head lettuce, cut off the root plate and remove the core, a hard area near the bottom. Cut the head in half or quarters.
- Separate leafy greens like leaf lettuce, kale, spinach into individual leaves and remove any yellowed or damaged leaves, thick stems or root pieces.
- Soak greens in cold, clean water for about 5 minutes, and then drain the sink or container.
- Rinse each leaf or section of head lettuce under cold running water.
- Use a lettuce spinner to dry greens or pat dry with clean paper towels. You can also air dry in a colander.
- Washed and dried greens will remain fresh for a few days in the refrigerator in a plastic bag or covered container but are best used right after washing.
Washing cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower
- Remove the outer leaves and roots. Store these vegetables in a bag or container in the refrigerator until ready to wash. Whole cabbage with roots left on can be stored in a cool place for several weeks.
- Soak the cabbage, broccoli etc. in cold water for 5 minutes. If you suspect cabbage worms or other insects add 1 cup of salt to the soaking water. This should kill them and draw them out of the vegetables. Then empty the soaking water and rinse well under cold running water.
- Allow these vegetables to air dry before storing or using. Washed cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts or cauliflower will store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for several days.
Washing root vegetables- potatoes, carrots, turnips, beets, radishes, onions
- Brush off excess dirt from root vegetables. Store your onions and potatoes outside of the refrigerator in a dark place. Carrots, beets, radishes and turnips should have the tops removed and be stored in the crisper or vegetable drawer of the refrigerator in a bag or container until washed.
- To wash onions cut off the root plate and top and peel off the outer layers of papery skin. Rinse under cold running water. On green onions peel off the outer layers of onion skin, cut off the roots and cut tops to the length you desire. Green onions will store for several days in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Bulb onions will also store in a plastic bag after they are washed, either cut or whole, for several days.
- Scrub potatoes and other root vegetables with a vegetable scrub brush under cold running water. Pay attention to “eye” areas, cracks and crevices and try to remove all traces of soil. After peeling wash root vegetables again under clean, cold running water. Use these right after washing.
Washing melons, pumpkins, squash and cucumbers
- Store the unwashed melons, summer squash and cucumbers in a bag or container in the refrigerator. Store your pumpkins and winter squash outside of the refrigerator, in a place above freezing.
- Do not cut melons, squash, pumpkins or cukes before washing them. Scrub the outside of melons, squash, cukes and pumpkins with a scrub brush under cold running water. Netted melons will need extra attention to remove all soil. Washed but uncut melons, squash and cukes can be dried and stored in the refrigerator for several days before use.
- Washed and cut melon, squash, cukes can be stored in containers or plastic bags or tightly wrapped in plastic for a day or two in the refrigerator.
Washing green or wax beans
- Store beans in a bag or container in the refrigerator for a day or so before washing.
- Remove any stems and leaves. Soak in cold water for 5 minutes. Drain container and rinse in a colander under cold, running water.
- Use beans right after washing.
Washing apples, pears, plums, peaches
- Store your pears outside the refrigerator until ripened and soft. Otherwise these fruits can be stored washed or unwashed in the refrigerator. Unwashed apples can be stored in a cool place outside the frig for several weeks.
- Wash these fruits under cold running water, turning them so all sides are exposed to the water. Let them dry or dry them with clean paper towels before refrigerating.
Washing berries and cherries
- Do not wash these fruits before you are ready to use them. Store unwashed berries and cherries in a container or bag in the refrigerator for several days.
- Pit cherries after washing them. Remove stems. Place berries and cherries in a colander and rinse under cold running water. Stir the fruit in the colander occasionally to expose all surfaces.
- Use berries and cherries right after washing.
Tropical fruit with a peel like oranges should be washed before eating or cutting. Soft tropical fruits should also be washed and treated like berries or cherries.
While it is most important to wash fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw, washing all fruits and vegetables, even those which you will be cooking, is a good idea.
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