During the journey from farm to table, the fruits, vegetables and other foods we eat are exposed to countless people, places, substances and surfaces before ever reaching our mouths. It would seem a given, then, that everything we bring home from the grocery store needs to be thoroughly washed and sanitized.
“Produce comes from the environment; it comes from the ground. The way that it’s grown and harvested, it can have dirt on it and other bacteria,” says Meredith Carothers, technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Unlike meat and poultry, which is packaged, a lot of times produce is just out in the grocery store on display.”
From a food safety standpoint, experts say it’s not necessary to wash all foods. In fact, washing some foods can actually increase the risk of contamination and illness. To help clear up any confusion, we asked Carothers to break down the do’s and don’ts of food washing.
Rules for washing produce
Do rinse fruits and vegetables under running water. After produce is harvested, it gets sorted, delivered and put on display in the grocery store. During this process there are many opportunities for produce to encounter a number of hands and surfaces. Before consuming fresh produce, remove any torn or bruised parts (bacteria that can cause illness thrive in these places) and rinse under running water to remove germs and dirt.
Do scrub hard produce with a clean brush. Foods like potatoes or apples can be scrubbed to thoroughly remove dirt from the exterior, including crevices that rinsing alone may not reach.
Do dry rinsed produce on a clean surface. That means spreading a clean cloth or paper towel on a clean surface to avoid recontamination. If you use a salad spinner, make sure it’s clean before you add greens to it, and clean it again between batches.
Don’t wash produce labeled “prewashed” or “ready to eat.” It is already safe to eat out of the package. Just make sure that prewashed produce doesn’t encounter unclean surfaces or utensils — especially if those surfaces have had raw meat or its juices on them.
Don’t use soap to clean produce. The USDA does not recommend any type of detergent on fruits or vegetables because it can leave behind a film that is not intended to be consumed. Some produce is also porous and may absorb the soap. Although you can buy commercial produce washes, they aren’t approved or labeled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not recommended.
Don’t soak produce. Soaking may remove the germs initially, but the now-tainted water can recontaminate your produce as well as nearby surfaces. When produce is rinsed under running water, the dirt and germs go down the drain.