Escherichia coli, commonly abbreviated E. coli, is a gram-negative bacterium found in the lower intestines of warm-blooded animals. Although most E. coli strains are harmless, one strain of this germ has recently been making hundreds of people in Europe, predominately in Germany, very sick–so sick that some have died. Naturally, these reports have been making many people afraid to eat raw fruits and vegetables, particularly lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
Are organic fruits and vegetables any safer?
All produce, whether grown organically or by traditional farming methods, contains at least some germs and contaminants from the soil, from dust and fungi, and from the handling and shipping process. As a result, even organic farmers can’t always guarantee that their produce is germ-free or that no chemicals have ever reached their crops.
Aren’t some new veggy-cleaning products now on the market?
Several businesses have tried their hand at developing special products for removing germs and pesticide traces from fruits and vegetables. Some of these cleansing products are liquid washes, while others generate ozone gas to be used at home for purifying foods.
Recently, the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Office conducted some tests that compared the purifying power of distilled water versus the power of some of these newer commercial liquids and gadgets. Here’s what the researchers found:
- Germs. A liquid product called Fit® Fruit and Vegetable Wash got rid of roughly the same number of microbes as did distilled water.
- Pesticides. Samples of produce that were washed with either Fit® or with distilled water had lower levels of residual pesticides than did unwashed samples.
- Ozone. Both of the two ozone cleansing systems tested–the Ozone Water Purifier XT-301 and the J0-4 Multi-Functional Food Sterilizer–removed microbes from blueberries; however, washing the berries with distilled water removed more germs than did either of these two systems.
In these experiments at the University of Maine, the commercial products on the market–at least the first wave of them–did not clean fruits and vegetables any better than distilled water did, and in some cases they didn’t perform as well.
So, can we eat raw produce or not?
I think it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath water, and so I still recommend that you eat fruits and vegetables, at least four to six servings a day, and some of them raw.
Having said that, if you live in an area (such as in Europe these days) where health officials have determined that some types of raw produce are making people sick, I would certainly avoid all items identified as dangerous, at least until the ban has been lifted.
And of course many other individuals have been advised by their physicians, for one health reason or another, to stay away from produce. But in general, I’m of the opinion that the risk is relatively low, and that fruits and vegetables should be perfectly safe for the rest of us.
A few general suggestions about salad safety
- Before consuming fruits and vegetables, wash them to remove germs and pesticides from their outter surfaces.
- Choose fruits and vegetables with peels and, after washing your hands, remove and discard peels before eating.
- Cook fruits and vegetables to kill bacteria.
- Keep raw and cooked foods separate from one another by assigning each its own cutting board.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling fruits and vegetables, and again before serving them.
If you’re still leery …
Then actually disinfect your salad fixings yourself by following the steps below. These guidelines for sanitizing fruits and vegetables were developed by a food scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
- Make a cheap, nontoxic disinfectant. First, buy a bottle of vinegar (white or cider) and a bottle of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide solution (sold at drugstores and groceries). Both these liquids are inexpensive and nontoxic, and so will allow you to apply them generously when sanitizing fruits, vegetables, and your food-prep surfaces.
- Pour these purifiers into new bottles. Put the vinegar and the hydrogen peroxide each into its own sanitized, dark-colored spray bottle. (First find out, though, if you can simply screw a clean new sprayer mechanism directly onto the hydrogen peroxide’s original bottle. (Dark bottles are needed to protect these liquids from becoming weakened by light).
- Spray away. Spray your fruits, vegetables, and work surfaces thoroughly, firstwith the vinegar and next with the 3 percent solution of peroxide.
- Rinse. Rinse the veggies under running water and wipe off your work surfaces with a clean, wet sponge.