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Why Should You Wash Your Produce?

Last Updated on: July 22, 2022

Variety of food rich in antioxidants and vitamins

In 2019, the country worried as people heard how romaine lettuce was causing E. coli outbreaks and hospitalizing people with serious symptoms of foodborne illness. (1) Romaine lettuce was removed from many produce shelves in supermarkets and people avoided buying it for some time even when it was eventually restocked.

Though widespread E. coli outbreaks are uncommon, there are many isolated instances of foodborne illness every single day in the United States. You have probably experienced illness because of contaminated food you have consumed. The FDA (The United States Food and Drug Administration) estimates that 48 million people are made sick by foods contaminated with germs every year. (2

These illnesses are uncomfortable and tiresome, but they are easily avoidable if proper care is taken to select and clean produce properly. Many foodborne illnesses could be prevented if you simply follow our advice.

First let’s explore how produce can become contaminated.

What is On Your Produce

Produce goes through a few different locations before it reaches your homes. Non-organic produce can have harmful pesticides on its outer skin which were sprayed in the fields where it grew. Animals or even human workers with poor hygiene could contaminate the fruits or vegetables before they are harvested. Even organic products may be contaminated by dirty water runoff or water contaminated with chemicals which reached the produce.

Once a fruit or vegetable is harvested, many people and machines could come in contact with it before it is packaged and sent to be sold. All it takes is one dirty hand to contaminate the item.

At the supermarket, it again will pass through the hands of those who stock the shelves, people picking it up deciding whether or not to buy it, and eventually, you.

Possible contamination continues at your home. A common cause of foodborne illness occurs through cross contamination when your produce comes in contact with raw meats or other items that have not been washed.


There are specific types of germs that are often found on produce.

According to the Environmental Working Group, more than 70 percent of produce which is not organic contains pesticide residues which are harmful to humans. They went on to explain that data tests done by the FDA found that 50% of potatoes, spinach, lettuce, and eggplants have detectable levels of a bee-kiling insecticide which is legal in the United States but has been banned in the European Union. (3)

Some of the most common germs on produce may be familiar to you. E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria are the most common bacteria linked to foodborne illnesses in the United States. (4)

Foodborne Illnesses


Foodborne illnesses can occur hours or days after having ingested contaminated food. Most cases are mild and cured with over the counter medicines and never require hospitalization. A normal case of foodborne illness will cause:

  1. Nausea
  2. Vomiting
  3. Diarrhea
  4. Abdominal pain
  5. Fever

However, in cases where symptoms are more severe you may experience:

  1. Frequent vomiting episodes
  2. Bloody vomit or stools
  3. Diarrhea that last for three days or more
  4. Signs of dehydration
  5. Neurological symptoms

If the more serious symptoms occur, you will need to seek medical attention from a licensed practitioner as soon as possible. (5)

It is worth the time to clean your food. One study found that eating produce with little or no pesticide residue was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. (6) If simply eating clean produce can protect your heart, imagine what other diseases and illnesses eating clean foods will cause.

Now that we know what could happen if produce items are not washed, let us explain how you should wash your fruits and vegetables.

Take Precautions

Avoiding food borne illnesses begins wherever you choose your produce. Whether that be a farmers market or a supermarket, select items that are not bruised or damaged in any way you can see with the naked eye. In the shopping cart, do not place produce next to meat, poultry, or seafood as germs can pass from meats onto other items. (7)

Do not cut unwashed produce. The knife as it slices through can carry harmful particles from the outermost layer into the center of the food.

Before preparing your produce, before it ever touches your cutting board, wash it properly.

How to Clean Produce Safely

When you get home, immediately wash all fruits and vegetables under running water. This should be done even if it is a type of produce where you do not eat the outside layer or skin.

The CDC (United States Center for Disease Control) recommends that people should not use soap, detergent, bleach, or commercial produce wash when cleaning fruits and vegetables. Produce is porous and can absorb the cleaning solutions making you sick. Most cleaning products have not been evaluated by the FDA for consumption and it is not safe to risk them seeping into your foods. (8)

The best way to safely clean produce is simple. Gently rub the produce under clean running water. Have a specific brush meant only for produce that you can gently scrub firmer items with. (9)

Always Remember

We may assume that when we choose fruits and vegetables we are eating safely. While it is always a good idea to choose fresh produce, washing the items is the best way to ensure the safety of your body.


Take the extra few minutes to clean your fruits and vegetables and avoid the dangers of foodborne illnesses. 

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