Last week when the Certified Organic farmers didn’t make it to market due to a family emergency I overhead a customer remark, “I only buy organic, so I don’t have to wash it,” as she stood in front of a poster advising customers to wash ALL vegetables and fruits, even the Certified Organic ones. While many vendors, both Certified and non-certified, wash their products to remove the dirt in which they are grown, others do not.
Thanks to the University of Maryland Extension, growers have free access to multiple resources in regard to food safety. When the colorful posters appeared at market earlier this year, I thought to myself, “Who needs to be told to wash their produce?” Now I know.
Why must you wash your produce?
Turns out there are a number of good reasons. Dirt. Bacteria. Viruses. Bugs. These are the reality of a biological existence.
First, how many times have you picked up produce with your hands, but it down and chosen another? How many people before you have also done that? Who knows where all those hands have been?
Secondly, produce is grown in dirt which is not sterile. Imbalances in the form of bacteria, especially from polluted or contaminated water happen regularly, either from natural occurrences such as flooding or man-made conditions like nutrient run-off. We all live downstream.
Outdoor row crops interface with nature be it a bird overhead or a deer darting through the fields. Heavy rains can splash fine dirt on to leaves that if not washed will leave diners feeling as if they’ve been eating sand. Tractors drive over top kicking up particles of dust mingled with exhaust.
As farmers, we get to see up close and personal how critical it is to have a living, breathing soil full of fungi, microbes, slugs, bugs, beetles, earthworms, wasps and nematodes. We know what benefits a good dose a compost does for the plants. I know vegetable farmers who are even particular to the type of cow manure—from the heifer barns only—that he puts on certain vegetables. There are farmers who build their own soils from scratch using composts, amendments and beneficial inoculants.
We often speak about how far removed from their food sources people have become. Even though I know I’m the only one who has touched the vegetables I grow in my own garden, I still wash everything (except cherry tomatoes I eat straight off the vine) because I know there are skunks, opossums, cats, rats, raccoons, snakes, turtles and toads who all make their homes among the food I grow.
At market I get three different kinds of carrots—loose carrots, carrots in a bag and carrots held together by a rubber band around their leafy-green tops. Beets come this way, though they are more likely to be in a box rather than a bag; radishes, too. I wash all of them. Sure, the loose and bagged carrots may not be sporting the dirt as the banded bunch and may not need as much of a scrubbing, but they still get rinsed.
What is the best way to wash your produce?
There’s no need for a sanitizing agent like vinegar; plain tap water will do fine. For smooth-skinned fruits and vegetables, a good rinse under running water is best, but a wipe-down with a damp cloth will also do. Leafy greens—even those that come in plastic containers—get a rinse in a colander, a soak if they are gritty to the touch. Think of spinach harvested after a rain. Those leaves are like dirt magnets more than any other leafy green. Root vegetables get a good scrubbing with a bristled brush to get fine particles of dirt out of all the nooks and crannies and to also remove the fine root hairs or eyes.
I found it equally disturbing that the poster had to warn people NOT to wash their produce using soap or bleach. The best time to wash produce is immediately prior to preparation for cooking or eating. Even fruits and vegetables with outer rinds that are not eaten, like melons, should be washed prior to cutting.
With the kick-off of the regular market season and warmer weather there’s going to be lots of gorgeous fresh produce showing up at the market straight from the fields and orchards. No matter how clean it appears or if it is Certified Organic or how much you trust the farmer, be smart and wash your produce.