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Handling fresh fruits and vegetables safely

Fresh produce may become contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites at any point during its farm to table journey. Safe handling of produce can reduce contamination so you don't get sick. 

See why it's important to ensure fruits and vegetables are clean before use.

Wash all fresh produce under running, drinking water before peeling, cutting or eating

  • Wash hands with hot soapy water, for at least 20 seconds, before and after handling fresh produce, or raw meat, poultry or seafood, as well as after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.
  • Wash all fresh produce under running, drinking water before peeling, cutting or eating. The wash water temperature should be 10 degrees warmer than the temperature of any produce being washed to prevent thermal shock and absorption of water and bacteria to the inside cells.
  • Scrubbing with a clean brush is only recommended for produce with a tough rind or peel (such as carrots, potatoes, cucumbers and squash) that will not be bruised or scratched by the brush bristles.
  • Discard outer leaves of leafy vegetables like lettuce and cabbage before washing.
  • Do not wash fruits and vegetables with bleach or soaps - it can absorb into the product and change the taste.
  • Wax coatings are used on some produce to keep in the moisture and keep good quality. Wax coatings are safe to eat. Remove the wax by scrubbing with a produce brush under running water.
Steps to keep produce clean.

Partnership for Food Safety Education. Fight Bac! Like a Produce Pro.

What about pesticide residues left on fruits and vegetables?

Keep in mind that the health benefits of eating fruit and vegetables outweigh the possible presence of pesticides. The FDA, USDA and EPA strictly control pesticides. If there is any pesticide residue on the fruit or vegetable, it should be under the regulations and safe to eat. A lot of the pesticides are water-soluble and will come off with water, which is another reason to wash fruit and vegetables before you eat them.

Safe preparation

Wash and sanitize equipment and surfaces

  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with hot soapy water and sanitize after cutting fresh produce, or raw meat, poultry, or seafood.
  • Sanitize after use with a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water.

Don't cross-contaminate

  • Use clean cutting boards and utensils when handling fresh produce.
  • If possible, use one clean cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.

Safe storage

  • Refrigerate fresh produce within 2 hours of peeling or cutting.
  • Throw away leftover cut produce if left at room temperature for more than 2 hours.

Soaking produce is not recommended

The Food and Drug Administration doesn't recommend soaking produce or storing it in standing water.

Wash with a sink sprayer instead

  • Fragile items and soft fruits (like strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries) can be washed using a sink sprayer. Place fruit in a colander and gently turn the fruit as you spray with water.

Method if you don't have a sink sprayer

  • Place fragile fruit in a colander and put into a stock pot of warm water.
  • Lift the basket in and out of the water several times.
  • Change the water and repeat until the water remains clear. Do this quickly because if the fruit absorbs too much water, it will lose flavor, texture and its aroma.
  • Be sure to rinse fruit with fresh water after washing it.

Is it necessary to dry produce after washing it?

Drying produce with a paper towel may further reduce bacteria that may be present. Drying is not necessary for items that will be cooked. Greens like spinach, chard, kale and collards should be cooked wet as drying them may affect the quality of the cooked product.

Cleaning products for produce: To use or not to use?

Don't use detergents.

Fruit and vegetables are very absorbent and will absorb any detergent or bleach used to wash them. Detergent was not made to be ingested and is not approved for use on food by the Food and Drug Administration.

Don't use chlorine beach. 

While chlorine bleach is used in commercial produce processing facilities, it is not recommended for home or foodservice use. If too much is used, it can be toxic (poisonous). It can also be absorbed into the product and change the flavor.

Producers use special washes

Sprays or solutions are available to clean produce. USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists developed antimicrobial washes for fresh produce classified as generally recognized as safe by the FDA, meets USDA organic standards and is biodegradable (Ag Research, 2016). These washes are designed for producers' use post-harvest.

What about washing produce with baking soda, vinegar or produce washes?

Baking soda or vinegar may affect flavor

  • Baking soda contains sodium which may affect the flavor of the produce. The strength of baking soda and water mixtures affects its cleaning ability.
  • Vinegar may leave an aftertaste.

Washing with water is just as effective as consumer produce washes

Many produce washes include surfactants, which are cleaning agents. They work by attaching to oil and dirt and loosen water-resistant substances like wax. To use on food they need to be registered with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). For the average consumer, research has shown that washing produce with tap water is just as effective as washing produce with any produce wash solutions that are on the market.

Do you need to wash leafy greens sealed in bags?

Don't wash leafy green salads in sealed bags labeled "washed", "triple washed", or "ready-to-eat"

They don't need additional washing at the time of use unless specially directed on the label. Additional washing of ready-to-eat leafy green salads is not likely to increase safety. The risk of cross-contamination from you and food contact surfaces used during washing outweigh any safety benefits.

Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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