Vinegar wash for produce

June 29, 2011 

Q: To clean fruits and vegetables, I fill my sink with water, add distilled white vinegar and soak the produce. How much vinegar should I add?

With Europe's recent outbreak of foodborne illness, many people are concerned about making sure fruits and vegetables are clean, especially those we consume without cooking.

The best advice used to be that simply washing fruits and vegetables was sufficient, with a scrub brush used on things with firm skins, such as cantaloupes and potatoes. However, there is some evidence that a combination of water and vinegar might be more effective.

Information from the University of Minnesota indicates that rinsing with water reduces the population of bacteria that might be present to 15 percent, while rinsing with some agitation or scrubbing motion can reduce it to 10 percent. But using a diluted vinegar solution can reduce bacteria to 1 percent or 2 percent.

Making a vinegar solution in the sink not only uses a lot of vinegar, it also could raise the problem of spreading contamination in the wash water if you don't thoroughly clean the sink. The most practical idea is to make a solution of 1/2 cup vinegar to 1 1/2 cups water in a spray bottle. Spray fruits and vegetables with it, let stand a minute or two and then rinse with running water.

However, Benjamin Chapman, the food safety specialist with N.C. Cooperative Extension, points out that many pathogens associated with outbreaks, such as E. coli, salmonella and shigella, can attach tightly in crevices where wash solutions, including diluted vinegar, may not reach.

So while you can reduce risk, you can't eliminate it. Chapman and other food-safety experts emphasize that effectively reducing contamination has to happen at the production level, with clean conditions on farms and in factories.

Kathleen Purvis answers food questions at www.charlotteobserver.com/food.

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