When it comes to motivating people to wash their produce before eating it, visuals seem to help.
Potatoes, for instance.
No food safety argument is needed when dirt is that easy to see and feel. But how about tomatoes and apples, which arrive at the grocer flawless and shiny? And bananas and watermelons, the skins and rinds of which you’ll never eat?
Getting people to wash those — yes, even the bananas — just takes a different sort of visual.
“Probably 100 people handled that banana before you did,” says Ann Zander, a food safety expert with the Colorado State University Extension in Longmont, Colo. “If you have somebody who hasn’t washed his hands after the bathroom or has the flu, that’s all over it.”
How’s that for motivation? Here’s the best way to wash your fruits and vegetables:
• Wash everything. Virtually all produce should be washed at home just before it is eaten. Washing in advance can reduce shelf life and promote bacterial growth.
• No soap. Federal food safety officials say produce should not be washed with detergents, soaps or bleach, which are not approved for use on food and could make you sick. Though some companies do market special produce washes, most experts say clean, cool running water is easier, more economical and just as effective. If you must have a special wash, make your own with water, lemon juice and baking soda.
• Use running water. Keep the produce under the water for 20 seconds, about the time it takes to sing your ABCs.
• Match technique to type. Produce with tough, creviced surfaces, like root vegetables, needs aggressive cleaning, such as scrubbing with a brush. More easily bruised items should be held under cool running water and gently rubbed by hand, giving special attention to any crevices or other spots where dirt and microbes can hide.
• Wash the scrubber after each use. Tossing it in the dishwasher is the easiest and most effective way to eradicate bacteria.
• Some produce is more likely to need more thorough care. According to the Environmental Working Group, conventionally grown peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes have more pesticide residues than other produce.
At the other end, the Washington-based advocacy group says onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and papaya had the least residue, if any.
Here are some specific foods and the best washing techniques:
BANANAS, AVOCADOS and WATERMELON
Scrub skin with a scrubber to eliminate contamination that could be transferred to flesh after touching or cutting through the exterior.
Give this extra scrubbing. “We’ve had a number of outbreaks of salmonella associated with cantaloupe,” says Michelle Smith, a food safety scientist with the Food and Drug Administration.
APPLES, TOMATOES, PLUMS, PEARS and PEACHES
They fall into the easily bruised category and should be washed under running water.
Rinse with a gentle spray of cool water.
The FDA advises removing the outer leaves from heads of greens, such as iceberg lettuce or cabbage, rinsing the inner portions and using a salad spinner to dry them.
PRE-WASHED BAGGED GREENS
According to the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a consortium that includes the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies, these items do not need to be washed again in the home.
The Mushroom Council says that because mushrooms are porous and have a sponge-like reaction to water, they should not be washed. Instead, gently rub away any dirt with a soft brush or damp cloth.
Many people ignore this advice. In large part, it depends on how the mushrooms will be used. If they will be eaten raw, brushing can work better because it won’t affect the texture of the flesh the way water can. But for use in cooking, the difference is negligible.
Break or cut the head into small florets, which can be placed in a strainer and rinsed under cool water. Do not soak broccoli.
Cut the cauliflower into florets by pulling back the leaves and cutting around the core on the underside. Pull or cut out the remaining core. From the inside, cut the head into smaller pieces.
Though protected by the husk, ears of corn still should be rinsed under cool water before eating, according to the Fresh Supersweet Corn Council. The silk, those white threads that cling to the ear, are best removed by brushing the ear with a soft brush or towel.
Trim off and discard the root end as well as the upper two-thirds of the green stalk (which is tough). Cut the remaining portion of the stalk in half lengthwise and submerge in a bowl of cool water.
Associated Press Writer Karen Matthews contributed to this report.