During the journey from farm to table, the fruits, vegetables and other foods we eat are exposed to countless people, places, substances and surfaces before ever reaching our mouths. It would seem a given, then, that everything we bring home from the grocery store needs to be thoroughly washed and sanitized.
“Produce comes from the environment; it comes from the ground. The way that it’s grown and harvested, it can have dirt on it and other bacteria,” says Meredith Carothers, technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Unlike meat and poultry, which is packaged, a lot of times produce is just out in the grocery store on display.”
From a food safety standpoint, experts say it’s not necessary to wash all foods. In fact, washing some foods can actually increase the risk of contamination and illness. To help clear up any confusion, we asked Carothers to break down the do’s and don’ts of food washing.
Rules for washing produce
Do rinse fruits and vegetables under running water. After produce is harvested, it gets sorted, delivered and put on display in the grocery store. During this process there are many opportunities for produce to encounter a number of hands and surfaces. Before consuming fresh produce, remove any torn or bruised parts (bacteria that can cause illness thrive in these places) and rinse under running water to remove germs and dirt.
Do scrub hard produce with a clean brush. Foods like potatoes or apples can be scrubbed to thoroughly remove dirt from the exterior, including crevices that rinsing alone may not reach.
Safe minimum cooking temperatures
- Ground beef, pork, veal, lamb: 160 degrees
- Ground chicken, turkey: 165 degrees
- Steaks, roasts, chops: 145 degrees
- Poultry: 165 degrees
- Fresh pork, ham: 145 degrees
- Precooked ham: 165 degrees
- Fish with fins: 145 degrees
Do dry rinsed produce on a clean surface. That means spreading a clean cloth or paper towel on a clean surface to avoid recontamination. If you use a salad spinner, make sure it’s clean before you add greens to it, and clean it again between batches.
Don’t wash produce labeled “prewashed” or “ready to eat.” It is already safe to eat out of the package. Just make sure that prewashed produce doesn’t encounter unclean surfaces or utensils — especially if those surfaces have had raw meat or its juices on them.
Don’t use soap to clean produce. The USDA does not recommend any type of detergent on fruits or vegetables because it can leave behind a film that is not intended to be consumed. Some produce is also porous and may absorb the soap. Although you can buy commercial produce washes, they aren’t approved or labeled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not recommended.
Don’t soak produce. Soaking may remove the germs initially, but the now-tainted water can recontaminate your produce as well as nearby surfaces. When produce is rinsed under running water, the dirt and germs go down the drain.
Rules for washing other foods
Don’t wash meat, poultry or seafood. Washing increases the risk for cross-contamination and doesn’t add any safety benefit. Although you may be rinsing some bacteria off the surface, you’ll never get it completely clean. In fact, any slosh or spray from washing meats, poultry or seafood can spread germs to your sink and countertops.
“A lot of people do it because it’s tradition; it’s what they grew up with,” says Carothers. “Really, the only way to make sure your meat and poultry products are safe to eat is to cook them to a safe internal temperature.”
Carothers says that anyone who still insists on washing their meats must fully sanitize their sink and other nearby surfaces afterward. Otherwise, germs can easily pass to other foods or to eating surfaces and raise the risk of foodborne illness.
In an observational study conducted by the USDA, 60 percent of participants who washed their raw chicken had bacteria residue in their kitchen sink. Of those who attempted to clean or sanitize the sink afterward, 14 percent still had bacteria left behind.
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Don’t wash eggs purchased from the grocery store. Eggs processed commercially in the U.S. are already washed before they land on store shelves. Washing them again at home can potentially lead to soap or contaminants seeping into the egg itself because the shell is permeable. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the washing of commercial eggs was a widespread and potentially dangerous problem, Carothers says, because people were using sanitizing solutions on the shells.
However, you can wash farm-fresh eggs — but not until you’re ready to cook or refrigerate them. Farm-fresh eggs have a natural protective coating on them. If this coating is removed and the egg is not refrigerated, bacteria can get inside the egg.
Don’t wash rice for sanitary reasons. However, it is perfectly safe to rinse rice to remove excess starch or for other quality preferences. Note that rinsing rice that is enriched with added nutrients such as iron and B vitamins may wash away those nutrients.
Many fruits and vegetables are associated with foodborne pathogens like listeria, salmonella and E. coli that can cause serious and sometimes fatal illness in people 65 and older and those with weakened immune systems. However, washing produce contaminated with foodborne pathogens does not always prevent exposure, and you may still get sick.
“We as consumers don’t have any way to totally know if we have washed every single piece of bacteria off that fruit or vegetable,” says Carothers. “That’s why if something is in the news for being contaminated, it’s best to just completely avoid it.”
Check the latest FDA food recalls here.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.