Wash Fresh Produce Before Eating to Ensure Food Safety

My boyfriend insists that we have to rinse off all fruit before eating it – even watermelon, kiwi and cantaloupe. I say fruit that I cut to eat, like melons, doesn’t need to be rinsed first, and it’s OK to just wipe off an apple or grape before popping it into your mouth. Who’s right? 

Close-up of various fruits and vegetables.

Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is a great choice that promotes a healthy diet. As such, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest you should fill half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables at each meal.

But, because fruits and vegetables can sometimes harbor harmful bacteria, it is important that you rinse all produce under running water before preparing or eating it.

That includes fresh produce that was purchased from a grocery store, a farmers market or even grown at home.

And, yes, even some fruits and vegetables that have skin need to be rinsed under running water before preparing or eating them, even if you do not plan to eat the skin.

For example, cantaloupe skin has nooks and crannies that can house dirt particles. You should give cantaloupes a good rinse and scrub them with a clean brush before you cut through them with a knife. That is because peeling or cutting unwashed produce can transfer dirt or other contaminates from the surface of the produce to the portion of the fruit or vegetable you plan to eat.

In fact, firm produce such as melons, apples and cucumbers should be scrubbed with a clean produce brush before peeling or cutting into them. And they should then be dried off with a clean paper towel or cloth to further reduce harmful bacteria that may be present on the skin, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Sprouts are among the vegetables that cause a high number of outbreaks. They have to be thoroughly washed before consuming. Vegetables like broccoli, lettuce and leafy kale should be rinsed under cold water just before you intend to eat them. However, don’t wash berries before putting them in the fridge because that will increase moisture and accelerate growth of spoilage bacteria and molds.

It is important to note that most fresh produce is eaten uncooked and there is no way to kill any harmful bacteria that may be present. This is where proper food safety handling comes into play. To lessen your chance for contracting foodborne illness, it is important that you not only wash fresh produce before preparing or eating it, but you should also wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation, FDA says.

So even though it may be quick and easy to just shine that apple on your shirt or wipe off those grapes and cherries with a quick swipe of your hands, don’t do it. Take the extra step to avoid the potential for foodborne illness.

Understanding food safety is an important step to avoiding foodborne illness. Some 48 million people get foodborne illnesses, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several groups of microorganisms can colonize or contaminate fruits and vegetables at any point in the food supply chain, according to food safety experts. Pathogenic bacteria such as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and viruses such as norovirus are commonly associated with consumption of fresh produce.

While washing produce is important, washing will not get rid of all bacteria or viruses. And washing with soap, detergent or commercial produce washes is no more effective than water. In fact, those products aren’t recommended at all, FDA says.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, specialist in Food Safety for Ohio State University Extension

3 thoughts on “Wash Fresh Produce Before Eating to Ensure Food Safety

  1. We bought some fresh strawberries at the farmers market this morning. As I hulled them, I placed them in the basket of my lettuce spinner, letting them sit under cold running water. Then I spun them dry and put them in the fridge in a container lined with a paper towel. Is that a good method for strawberries? (By the way, they are delicious.)

  2. Hi Martha,

    Thanks for your question!

    While it’s important that you rinse produce under running water before eating, it’s not a good idea to wash fruit before storing it. Fruits like grapes, cherries and strawberries that people like the convenience of being able to just pop in their mouths, should be stored unwashed. This is because washing the fruit before storage will increase the chance that the produce will spoil prematurely. Putting washed fruit in the fridge adds excess moisture, which speeds up the fruit’s decay.

    It’s best to wash your fruits under running water before eating. But it’s best to hold off on the rinsing until you are ready to eat.

    Thanks — and great to hear from you!!!

    • Ah, good to know. Thanks very much… next time I’ll either have to eat up a bunch of strawberries very quickly or follow your advice. 🙂

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