Handling Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Safely
Fresh produce may become contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites at any point during its farm to table journey.
Wash All Fresh Produce Under Running, Drinking Water Before Peeling, Cutting or Eating
- Wash hands with hot soapy water, for at least 20 seconds, before and after handling fresh produce, or raw meat, poultry, or seafood, as well as after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.
- Wash all fresh produce under running, drinking water before peeling, cutting or eating. The wash water temperature should be 10° F warmer than the temperature of any produce being washed to prevent thermal shock and absorption of water and bacteria to the inside cells.
- Scrubbing with a clean brush is only recommended for produce with a tough rind or peel (i.e. carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, and squash) that will not be bruised or scratched by the brush bristles.
- Throw away outer leaves of leafy vegetable like lettuces, cabbage before washing.
- Do not wash fruits and vegetables with bleach or soaps – it can absorb into the product and change the taste.
- Wax coatings are used on some produce to keep in the moisture and keep good quality. These are safe to eat or you can cut it off.
What about pesticide residues left on fruits and vegetables?
Keep in mind that the health benefits of eating fruit and vegetables outweigh the possible presence of pesticides. The FDA, USDA and EPA strictly control pesticides. If there is any pesticide residue on the fruit or vegetable, it should be under the regulations and safe to eat. A lot of the pesticides are water-soluble and will come off with water, which is another reason to wash fruit and vegetables before you eat them.
- Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot soapy water and sanitize after cutting fresh produce, or raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Sanitize after use with a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water.
- Don't cross-contaminate. Use clean cutting boards and utensils when handling fresh produce. If possible, use one clean cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
- Refrigerate fresh produce within two hours of peeling or cutting. Throw away leftover cut produce if left at room temperature for more than two hours.
Soaking Produce is Not RecommendedThe Food and Drug Administration does not recommend soaking produce or storing it in standing water. Instead:
- Place fragile items and soft fruits like strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries can be washed using a sink sprayer. Place fruit in a colander and gently turn the fruit as you spray with water.
- If you do not have a sink sprayer, place fragile fruit in a colander and put into a stock pot of warm water. Lift the basket in and out of the water several times. Change the water and repeat until the water remains clear. Do this quickly because if the fruit absorbs too much water, it will lose flavor, texture and its aroma. Be sure to rinse fruit with fresh water after washing it.
Is it necessary to dry produce after washing it?
Drying produce with a paper towel may further reduce bacteria that may be present. Drying is not necessary for items that will be cooked. Greens like spinach, chard, kale and collards should be cooked wet as drying them may affect the quality of the cooked product.
Cleaning Products for Produce: To use or not to use that is the question?
- Fruit and vegetables are very absorbent and will absorb any detergent or bleach used to wash them. Detergent was not made to be eaten and is not approved for use on food by the Food and Drug Administration.
- While chlorine bleach is used in commercial produce processing facilities, it is not recommended for home or foodservice use. If too much is used, it can be toxic (poisonous). It can also be absorbed into the product and change the flavor.
- Sprays or solutions available to clean produce do remove dirt, but do not remove unwanted bacteria. If a spray or product says it is antibacterial, the Environmental Protection Agency considers this a pesticide. None of these vegetable products are registered with EPA.
What about washing produce with baking soda, vinegar or produce washes?
- Baking soda contains sodium which may affect the flavor of the produce. The strength of baking soda and water mixtures affects its cleaning ability.
- Vinegar may leave an aftertaste.
- Many produce washes include surfactants, which are cleaning agents. They work by attaching to oil and dirt and loosen water-resistant substances like wax. To use on food they need to be registered with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). For the average consumer research has shown that washing produce with tap water is just as effective as washing produce with any produce wash solutions that are on the market.
Do you need to wash leafy greens sealed in bags?
- Leafy green salads in sealed bags labeled "washed", "triple washed", or "ready-to-eat" do not need additional washing at the time of use unless specially directed on the label.
- Additional washing of ready-to-eat leafy green salads is not likely to increase safety. The risk of cross-contamination from you and food contact surfaces used during washing outweigh any safety benefits.
Reviewed by Deb Botzek 2015