Although most people know that they must handle animal products appropriately to prevent illness, fruits and vegetables can also carry harmful germs.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimate that around 48 million people every year get sick from eating contaminated food.

In recent years, outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have occurred due to bacteria on cantaloupe, lettuce, tomatoes, and spinach. People who eat contaminated produce can get sick and even require hospitalization.

In this article, we look at why it is important to wash fruits and vegetables, including pesticides and possible contamination.

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Washing fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of illness from food contamination.

People should thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before cooking or eating them. Produce that the manufacturer has prewashed does not require further rinsing, however.

There are two main risks of eating unwashed fruits and vegetables: bacterial contamination and pesticides.

In recent years, many outbreaks of foodborne illness have come from contaminated cantaloupe, spinach, tomatoes, and lettuce.

In 2016, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated an outbreak of listeriosis that hospitalized 19 people. One person died from the infection.

More recently, in January 2019, the CDC, FDA, and health officials in several states and Canada investigated an outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli) infections from contaminated romaine lettuce.

This outbreak affected 62 people across 16 states, but there were no deaths.

Although pesticides can help farmers grow more food, they also have many health risks. It can be challenging to avoid pesticides, however, as many nontargeted crops have exposure to these chemicals.

According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization, almost 70% of fruits and vegetables in the United States have pesticide residue, even after washing.

Produce can become infected with harmful bacteria at different stages. During the growing phase, contamination can occur through:

  • animal contact
  • harmful substances in soil or water
  • poor hygiene

Fruits and vegetables can also become contaminated after harvesting. Even in our homes, produce can become contaminated as a result of improper storage and during food preparation.

Sometimes, fresh produce contains harmful germs such as Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria.

These bacteria can make people very sick. Some people are more vulnerable to getting a foodborne illness than others.

People who may be more at risk of food poisoning from produce include:

  • children younger than 5 years old
  • pregnant women
  • adults aged 65 and over
  • people with weakened immune systems

Symptoms of foodborne illness can include:

Severe Listeria infections may also cause:

  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • loss of balance
  • convulsions

Fruits and vegetables are an essential part of the human diet. They are nutrient dense, low in calories, and high in fiber. It is vital to keep eating produce, but people must take the necessary steps to ensure that it is safe.

Before eating any produce, the FDA recommend:

  • washing the hands both before and after food preparation
  • cutting away any damaged areas before preparing or eating
  • rinsing produce that has a skin before peeling it to prevent dirt and bacteria from transferring into the edible parts
  • rubbing produce under running water
  • using a clean vegetable brush to scrub hard produce, such as melons and cucumbers
  • drying fruits and vegetables with a clean cloth or paper towel
  • removing the outermost leaves of lettuce and cabbage

People should store fresh, perishable produce in the refrigerator at or below 40°F (4°C).

It is not necessary to wash produce labeled as prewashed. It is also unnecessary to wash produce with soap or other cleaning products.

Other recommendations include:

  • using separate cutting boards for fruits and vegetables, raw meats, poultry, and seafood
  • using separate utensils for cooked and raw foods
  • storing produce away from raw meat, poultry, or seafood

Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) publish a report of their findings of pesticide residues in foods. Most produce still contains pesticide residue even after washing.

The investigators state that over 99% of the products they sampled had residues below the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits.

In the 2017 annual summary of the Pesticide Data Program, the USDA reported which produce contained pesticide levels that exceeded EPA tolerances.

These included:

In addition to these fruits and vegetables, the USDA found samples of produce with residues that did not have a tolerance in the Code of Federal Regulations. The USDA consider that these samples violated pesticide tolerances.

These fruits and vegetables include:

People who want to avoid pesticides can buy certified organic products. The USDA organic regulations are strict rules that farmers must follow.

According to the USDA regulations, organic farmers can use certain pesticides as a last resort for pest control. For example, naturally occurring microorganisms, plant-based insecticides, and some approved synthetic substances are allowed.

People should wash their fruits and vegetables under running water to prevent consuming contaminated produce.

Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella can be present on produce. In recent years, people have developed foodborne illnesses from fruits and vegetables.

Cooking produce before consumption is the safest way to eat fruits and vegetables, but people should still wash them beforehand.

Many farmers use pesticides on their produce. If people want to avoid consuming pesticides, they can choose organic produce or avoid produce that contains higher levels of pesticides, such as kale, cranberries, and asparagus.