July 22, 2014

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Chow Line: Be sure produce is washed properly

ProduceMy wife always rinses packaged lettuce that’s marked as prewashed. She said it sometimes smells funny so she likes to rinse it off. If it smells funny, should we eat it? And is washing it necessary?
Prewashed lettuce in a sealed bag sometimes accumulates carbon dioxide, and you might notice a slight odor when you first open the bag. It should dissipate quickly and doesn’t indicate any health risk.
Be sure to read the label. Don’t assume that prepackaged produce is prewashed. If it is, you’re right — there’s no reason to wash it again. But if you can’t resist, just be sure you do so properly. It would be ironic if, in trying to be doubly safe by washing prewashed produce, you ended up contaminating it by doing so sloppily.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers guidelines for selecting and serving raw produce at www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/consumers/ucm114299, and food safety experts with Colorado State University Extension offer additional tips at www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09380.html. Here’s what experts say about washing raw fruits and vegetables:

• Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling raw produce, and also clean counter tops, cutting boards and utensils with hot soapy water.

• Generally, it’s best to wait to wash fresh produce until just before you plan to eat it, because the additional moisture may encourage the growth of bacteria and speed spoilage. If you see dirt on produce and want to wash it before storage, use clean paper towels to dry it thoroughly afterward.

• Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing or eating. Does the produce look rotten? Use common sense and throw it away.

• Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before eating, cutting or cooking. The running water helps to dislodge dirt and bacteria and wash it away. Experts do not recommend washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent, as produce is porous and could absorb the chemicals in them, or using commercial produce washes.

• Even bananas should be rinsed off under cool running water just before eating, say experts from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

• For other produce with a firm skin or rind, use a vegetable brush under running water before cutting into it, even if you plan on peeling it. This will reduce the chance that any dirt or microorganisms on the surface would be transferred to the portion you’ll be eating.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor, please note: In May and June 2014, Chow Line will be published only every other week.
This column was reviewed by Linnette Goard, field specialist in Food Safety, Selection and Management with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.