When I was a little girl, each summer my mom and I would spend a day picking strawberries at a local farm. I'm pretty sure I ate as many as I picked, at least for the first hour. They were straight off the plant, sweet as can be, and yes, unwashed.
Fast-forward about 25 years and you'll find me in a panic when I realized my husband had accidentally given our daughter a bowl of blueberries he thought had been washed, but had not.
No one got sick in either situation, but it's safe to say, I take washing fruits and vegetables a little more seriously these days.
The fact is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 percent of foodborne illnesses are linked to fruits and vegetables. Washing produce thoroughly really is critical.
"Food grows outside, our produce grows outside, birds fly by, animals live in the field and it can become contaminated," said Anna Schmitt-Reichert, a food safety expert from NSF International, a public health and safety organization headquartered in Ann Arbor.
NSF International has studied where germs hide in our homes.
"We actually went into consumer's households, and we swabbed the inside of that vegetable drawer," said Schmitt-Reichert. "What we found in there was very surprising. We found salmonella, we found E. coli, we found Listeria. So that indicated, that's from the raw fruits and vegetables."
So what's the best way to get those germs off? According to Schmitt-Reichert, you don't need to buy a pricey vegetable wash.
"Vegetable washes, we don't recommend them. Just using cold, running water is fine to wash your fruits and vegetables with," she said.
What is important is abrasion or friction. Basically, you need to scrub your produce as much as it can withstand.
For spinach and other leafy greens, that means washing each leaf individually. Schmitt-Reichert admits, it's time-consuming.
"It is a pain, but they're really good vegetables and they're worth it."
Schmitt-Reichert then lets the washed spinach sit in water for a couple minutes, rinses them again, then takes the leaves out of the bowl and puts them into a salad spinner. She lets them air dry on paper towels for about an hour.
For berries, Schmitt-Reichert uses a colander.
"Regular running water on it, just kind of have 'em roll around in there or you could actually use a sprayer which I think might make it easier," said Schmitt-Reichert.
Again, she rubs each berry individually.
Produce with soft skins, like peaches or apples, can be washed under running water with light friction and patted dry.
Turns out the biggest mistake people make is not washing the rind or peel of thick-skinned produce like bananas or melons.
"You can still get that bacteria on your hands and then on the fruit and then when you're slicing through that, the knife actually takes the bacteria right through there," said Schmitt-Reichert. " If the outside is dirty, that dirt is going to go right into the fruit of the cantaloupe itself, and so, you're gonna get whatever that dirt is carrying. It could be E. coli, it could be just plain old dirt, but it doesn't taste very good either."
To wash melons properly, Schmitt-Reichert recommends using a scrub brush and running water.
"Wash under cold water and just use the brush on it. Give it a good scrub."
Schmitt-Reichert said the only thing you don't need to wash is prewashed bagged produce. They've found most people who wash it actually end up contaminating it themselves.
As for everything else -- "Our recommendation is to wash the produce," said Schmitt-Reichert.
It may take some fun out of swiping a snack from the garden or yes, berry-picking, but it will reduce your family's risk of getting sick. Now if I can just convince the strawberry farm to install some sinks.
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