Clean Your Greens

Why you still need to wash your vegetables.

Photo: rae huo

Just when you think it’s safe to eat your veggies, you’ll hear a news report, like the one about parasite-induced meningitis, that sets off an alarm bell among consumers as well as those in the produce business. In February, some slugs and snails on vegetables in Hawaii were suspected of causing serious illness, and the state Health Department issued warnings that we need to wash our vegetables—and, of course, not to eat raw snails.

You’d think that common sense would prevail: washing vegetables and fruits is imperative, no matter where they come from, whether they are bagged in plastic or not. But it’s easy to get lazy, especially when some packaging boasts, “triple washed.”

Good farms ensure that workers observe sanitation practices, such as washing their hands when they come to work, after they take a break or eat lunch. They keep animals out of the fields. They place harvested vegetables in clean bins and keep them off the ground. They wash produce to remove soil, using county water, not water from an irrigation system that may have been exposed to animals and the elements. Careful farmers might employ a chlorine dip to further sanitize produce, and monitor chlorine levels. They pack produce in new boxes, or in used boxes that have been lined with clean paper.

Here in Hawaii, Armstrong Produce, the state’s largest produce wholesaler and distributor, has for several years been working with Island farmers to enforce food safety rules. While most of the produce handled at its new Mapunapuna distribution facility is from the Mainland, Armstrong is also the largest buyer of locally grown fruits and vegetables. “We’ve visited 80 to 90 farmers statewide to let them know what we expect,” said Tisha Uyehara, Armstrong’s director of marketing. “We inspect their farms and give them a checklist of things that need correcting. We’ll be going back for another round of inspections. We provide lots of coaching, but it’s making a difference in attitude and the farmers have a sense of pride, too.”

Last month, a joint venture of specialty greens grower Nalo Farm and Asian vegetable and lettuce grower Aloun Farm established an all stainless-steel processing facility, designed to wash and pack thousands of pounds of leafy greens each day. A bigger facility is also in the works, bringing these two farms up to Mainland standards for safe food-processing facilities.

But we can’t just rely on the produce industry; consumers have to do their part, too. You need to wash your fruits and vegetables. Fruits such as cantaloupe and watermelon, for example, rest on the ground as they grow. While they may be washed before delivery to your favorite market, the exterior could still harbor bacteria. Papayas and bananas grow up off the ground, but are still exposed to bugs and birds. Leafy greens can hide insects among the foliage. Even those safe-looking salad greens packaged in plastic bags may still have traces of chlorine or an unwanted bug or two. When it comes to safe produce, it’s pretty simple: washing removes excess dirt, pesticides and other unwanted elements from your food.

Bathing veggies

  •  To wash salad greens, place them in a sink or large container of water (don’t run water over greens, as they will bruise), swish them around and allow to stand for a few minutes to allow dirt to sink to the bottom. Then, scoop the greens out, dry them thoroughly in a salad spinner and store them in a plastic bag with a few paper towels to absorb any excess moisture. Remove air from the bag and store it for up to a week in the refrigerator.
  • Root vegetables should be scrubbed with a brush to remove excess dirt and pesticide residues.
  • Always check prepackaged greens for signs of spoilage.