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Wilburn: Wash produce thoroughly

POSTED: June 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Questions are still coming in on the best way to handle fresh produce, because when it comes to produce, fresh does not always equal clean.

And with the average American consuming 300 pounds of fresh produce per year, produce cleanliness is becoming increasingly important. Here are some general steps to follow in handling fresh fruits and vegetables:

Step 1: Buy from a reputable dealer

To my mind, the first step that all of us should take in the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is to buy produce from a reputable dealer. If you are at the supermarket, ask where the produce was grown; at a farmer's market or roadside stand, ask how the produce has been grown and handled. If you don't get satisfactory answers, consider purchasing elsewhere.

Step 2: Store fresh produce to preserve safety and quality

It's important to store fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator when you bring them home from the market. This will, in general, slow the growth of most pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria that might be present. However, for some fruits and vegetables that are sensitive to cold temperatures (tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, avocados, cucumber, eggplant, lemons and pineapple, for example) refrigerated storage will harm the quaslity, so consider handling them differently. (Store them in the refrigerator for a limited time only, or store them at room temperature and use them promptly).

When produce is prepared ahead of time, particularly if it is cut, be sure to refrigerate it at 40 degrees or below until it is served, this applies to even chilling the sensitive products listed above. Or better yet, add bananas to the fruit salad just before serving so you won't have to refrigerate them.

Step 3: Wash produce before eating

For many consumers the kitchen sink is the last line of defense in making sure fruits and vegetables are clean and safe to eat. And what's the best way to do that? A good thorough rinsing under cold, running water is always recommended.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Extension

More answers about washing produce

Question: What about soap and water?

Answer: Soap isn’t generally meant to be consumed and will have limited effect in removing contaminants such as pesticides from produce. And the residue left behind by the soap might be as harmful as the contaminant you are trying to remove.

Q: Is a water wash enough to remove bacteria?

A: A water wash will not kill bacteria, but it will reduce the numbers of bacteria present. Lettuce leaves should be rinsed individually under running tap water, and root vegetables should be scrubbed, even if you are planning on peeling them later. Try rinsing delicate fruit such as strawberries in a colander. And if you can apply a rub, like with a tomato or an apple, that’s even better. Rub by hand under running water, or rub with a paper towel before you bite into that apple.

Q: What about items such as melons that I am going to peel. Do I have to wash those as well?

A: Yes, items such as melons, carrots and potatoes should all be cleaned before they are peeled. Cantaloupe, for one, has been linked to outbreaks of salmonella, which is found on the rind; when you slice thorough the rind you can contaminate the entire fruit. And consider removing the outer leaves of lettuce since that’s the area most likely to harbor microorganisms.

Q: Do I need to add chlorine to my water wash?

A: No. A water wash is fine. USDA scientists have found that chlorine water rinses have limited effectiveness.

Q: What about the new veggie washes?A

: The new produce washes come in spray bottles, generally cost about $5 and are meant to be misted onto a head of lettuce or colander of strawberries, then rinsed off thoroughly, removing dirt and other contaminants and leaving no apparent change in color, texture or flavor. Their contents vary but, in general, they contain chemicals that loosen dirt and other substances that might otherwise cling stubbornly to the skin of a peach or carrot. Are they effective? No one yet knows. National organizations still encourage consumers : "If you wash produce very thoroughly, you will increase the chances of removing bacteria and parasites."

Q: What other hints should we remember?

Always use a clean cutting surface, and wash your hands before handling fresh produce

Remove areas of apparent decay

Even organic foods may be contaminated with microorganisms and should be washed before eating

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.


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