Clean food: Washing produce helps stave off health problems

Popeye isn’t stupid. He knows spinach is good for him. But would he find a substitute for muscle-power if he hears about the infamous spinach-caused E. coli outbreak of several years ago?

And what about you? Would you change your mind about that gorgeous apple in the grocery bin if you knew at least four shoppers had already examined it, with their hands, if recent studies are accurate? What about the residual pesticide on produce?

The powers that be — U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mississippi State Department of Health, to name a few — believe the nutritional benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables far outweigh these scares. That’s because they believe common sense can, for the most part, cancel out the worries.

Dietitian Donna Speed believes foodborne illness is minimized when we use common sense in buying, washing, storing and preparing fresh fruits and vegetables. She’s the state Health Department’s nutrition director.

“The first thing is to buy quality, fresh produce that is not bruised or damaged because that means it has already begun spoiling,” said Speed. “If there is a bad spot cut it out because it will only continue to spread.

“The next important thing is to clean the produce properly.”

Soft fruit and vegetables, such as strawberries and lettuce, are delicate and shouldn’t be washed until they are to be eaten. If you buy a prewashed packaged of salad greens, Speed says, it should be safe to eat without washing. But if you have a previously opened bag, wash that before serving.

So what’s the best way to clean produce?

“The latest safety practice is to wash fresh fruits and vegetables with good, clean water,” Speed said.

That hasn’t always been the advice. Previous generations grew up believing they needed to soak vegetables in a water and weak chlorine bleach to kill bacteria and salt to kill bugs. Modern thoughts are plain water is best, especially for soft and porus fruits that might absorb chemicals or soap.

A growing market for “veggie wash” proves many Americans are concerned about what’s on fresh produce. Debate centers around using that or plain water, and the USDA favors water. If, however, there are more healthfragile people in your household, such as young children, the elderly or chronically sick, such veggie washing can be an added step for reassurance.

The one thing you should not do, advise the experts, is to use regular dish detergent because it has chemicals not approved by the FDA for consumption. Produce can absorb the detergent that is easily rinsed off plates and utensils.

More than anything else, scrubbing is the key, because it can remove pesticide residue, dirt and bacteria, and brushes are made specifically for the task. The softer fruits and veggies that can’t take brushing should be dunked in a bin of fresh water, switched around, drained and dunked at least one more time.

“There’s really only one answer to how to best clean your produce, and that is wash well with water and use a brush. You don’t have to pay for veggie soap,” said Cecilia Burke, infection prevention specialist at Hancock Medical Center.

“My mother-in-law from Alabama washes her greens in the washing machine.”

Make that the gentle cycle and obviously no detergent, which brings up a very good point. One of the most overlooked steps in washing is what you wash your produce in and where you put it. Are your hands clean? Are sinks, countertops, vegetable refrigerator bins clean?

Every produce should be washed, even if you intend to peel it. If you don’t, your hands will transfer the bad stuff to the part you eat. The experts say even cantaloupe should be scrubbed before cutting.

What you can do

- Check all produce to ensureit is not bruised or damagedbefore making your purchase.

- Avoid fresh-cut produce likepackaged salads and pre-cutmelons that are not refrigerated.

- Wash hands with warmwater and soap for 20 secondsbefore and after handling freshfruits and vegetables.

- Rinse fresh produce underrunning tap water, includingthose with skins and rinds thatare not eaten. Never use detergentor bleach. Produce washescan be used if desired. (Exception:fruits and vegetableslabeled “ready to eat” or “triplewashed” need no further washing.)

- Rub firm-skin fruits and vegetablesunder running tap wateror scrub with a clean vegetablebrush while rinsing under tapwater.

- Separate produce fromhousehold chemicals and rawfoods like eggs, meat, poultryand seafood.

- Throw away fresh fruits andvegetables that have not beenrefrigerated within two hours ofcutting, peeling or cooking.For more information on handlingproduce safely, go