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July, 2011

Doing the Wash

By Dennis Linden

While an experiment conducted at Tennessee State University did measure a slight decrease in bacterial count on an apple when test participants blew on the skin and polished it shiny on their shirts, this is really not the proper way to “wash” fresh produce

Besides the results must have varied greatly depending on the cleanliness of each polisher’s shirt! The produce industry goes to great lengths to insure that all fruits and vegetables are safe to eat at every stage of the field to fork distribution pipeline. The precautions taken throughout the growing and harvest periods are adhered to scrupulously by commercial farming operations under the guidelines and continuous inspections of both federal and state agencies. A second tier of food safety protocols greet perishable produce that arrives at both wholesale and retail distribution centers. Melissa’s, for instance, has a dedicated Food Safety Management Team that continually reviews every aspect of the company’s handling system. The team is constantly tweaking our receiving, storage and shipping protocols, based on the newest and best science available, to comply with our own in-house Food Safety Management Program .

This gauntlet of safeguards, mandated by law and carried out by professionals, results in the timely delivery of safe fresh produce to home kitchens across this country. However, once through the door of a private home, handling laws are not enforceable. The bacterial count on fresh produce not handled correctly in the home kitchen can reverse all the food safety efforts it took to get it there. Ideally, a home kitchen should be managed like a restaurant kitchen, but that just isn’t practical considering the traffic of kids and pets, as well as the put-it-anywhere clutter of the typical household refrigerator; none of which is even allowed by law in a commercial kitchen. While few can take time to mimic the health codes that a professional chef must follow, a few common sense practices in hygiene, handling and storage can go a long way in not breaking the chain of food safety assurance during this final stretch of the delivery system from front door to the dining table. Here are some general handling tips as well as a few specific washing techniques for different kinds of fresh produce, all with an eye toward minimizing harmful microorganisms on raw fruits and vegetables. Start with the hands. This goes without saying, except for the fact that it is often overlooked. Before preparing any kind of food, especially fresh produce, always wash your hands, countertops, cutting boards and knives with hot soapy water.

All produce requires refrigeration. Store fruits and vegetables in crisper bins or on shelves above raw meats, poultry, or seafood to prevent cross contamination. Keeping fresh produce in cloth produce bags or plastic bags that are perforated will allow air to circulate and prevent condensation, which speeds deterioration. Do not allow sliced, peeled or cooked produce to stay at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is above 90°F). A bowl of fruit that sits on a kitchen counter or, worse, is a centerpiece on a dining table for several days, is a great example of exactly how not to handle perishable produce. Fruits not only ripen much quicker at room temperature, but the developing sugars attract fruit flies and other household critters that all carry bacteria. Use flowers, not fresh food, as an interior design component. All fresh produce should be washed, whether it was bought or plucked from your own organic garden. Bacteria that may have accumulated on the outside of raw produce can be transferred to the inside when it is being cut or peeled. The FDA advises against using commercial produce washes because the safety of their residues has not been evaluated and their effectiveness has not been tested or standardized. Likewise, do not wash fruits and vegetables with detergent or bleach solutions. Fresh produce is porous and can easily absorb these chemicals, which will affect both taste and the safety of the food.

Wash just before use. Washing produce before storing in the refrigerator may encourage bacterial growth and speed up spoilage. Generally, most all dirt has been removed from fresh produce bought at retail, but if not, or if the item came out of your garden and you choose to wash before storing, then dry it thoroughly with clean paper towels before storing. Do not use a kitchen towel to avoid cross contamination. Still, a little field dirt is really nothing to worry about unless you find it on your fork, so not washing it off before storing is the best option. Running fruits and vegetables under clean tap water has proven to be quite effective in cleansing produce of microorganisms. Simply rub fruits and vegetables briskly with your hands to remove dirt and surface microbes. The wash water should be no more than 10 degrees colder than the produce being washed to prevent microorganisms entering into the stem or blossom end of the item. If immersing or soaking in water, use a clean bowl rather than the sink because the drain area often contains all sorts of bacteria. Adding vinegar to the bowl can also help kill bacteria; just remember to rinse after immersing so the vinegar does not affect the taste. Produce with a hard rind or firm skin may be scrubbed with a vegetable brush.

Not all types of produce can be rinsed the same. Studies have shown that only about 50% of consumers wash produce properly and 12% do not wash it at all…

Leafy greens: Discard the outer layer of all lettuces and any leaves that are torn or visibly bruised. Separate and soak the leaves in a solution of 2 parts water and 1 part white vinegar for a few minutes to help loosen dirt from the textured leaves. Then rinse each leaf in clean running water and blot dry with a paper towel or use a salad spinner.

Root vegetables: Potatoes, carrots, turnips and like veggies should be peeled, then scrubbed with a firm vegetable brush under lukewarm running water. Berries, cherries and grapes: Do not wash until ready to serve. Place in a colander and gently rinse, then spread out on paper towels and blot dry with another paper towel.

Soft Fruits: Wash peaches, nectarines, and plums under running water and paper towel dry.

Hot Peppers: Always wear gloves when washing chiles under running water. Be sure not to touch the eyes while wearing the gloves and put them directly into a washing machine when finished -- the gloves, not the peppers.

Mushrooms: Like berries, do not wash until ready to use. Gently rinse under cool (not warm) water using a soft vegetable brush to carefully scrub off any dirt.

Fresh Herbs: Hold like a bouquet and swirl in a bowl of cool water then lay out on a paper towel and blot dry. Melons: Use a firm brush to scrub melons with textured skin thoroughly under running water. Smooth-skinned melon can just be rubbed clean under the tap. And if you are going polish those apples the old-fashioned way, at least put on a clean shirt!