Scrub Me

You may have seen the headlines. A new report has come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the news is alarming.

Half of all food poisoning is caused by produce. But, there is more to the story.

Every year 48 million Americans catch a bad bug from food, and 2,000 people die, so this is very serious business. Most of those who die got their illness from bad poultry, with dairy coming in second place. But vegans are not immune to problems. Here we are striving to eat more healthy greens and veggies, and it turns out that some veggies are coming to your market tainted with scary bacteria.

The CDC also stated that most of the produce-related outbreaks happened in restaurants and food service. That means that most of the time, poor food handling procedures were to blame, rather than the produce itself. It’s very easy for a salad or sandwich to get cross-contaminated. A prep cook in a hurry might cut raw chicken or fish on a cutting board, then neglect to fully sanitize the board or the knife, before chopping your lettuce or tomato. Mistakes happen.

As a private chef, I often go in people’s homes, and see how people handle their home sanitation. It always strikes me that most kitchens are not really set up to be sanitary, the way restaurants are. Nobody has a dedicated sink for washing produce in a deep water bath, or a bucket of sanitizing solution sitting on the counter. Very few people have multiple cutting boards for animal foods and produce, and very few people keep anything besides dish soap and scouring powder under the sink.

So let me coach you on a good system to set up, to keep you and your family safe from bad bugs.

1. Buy a spray bottle and fill it with a mixture of 2 cups water to 1 cup white vinegar. This mixture has been tested and found to remove 98% of bad bacteria. You don’t need bleach or fancy sprays. Buy a gallon of vinegar and use it for cleaning. For smaller produce, like an apple or two, just spray the produce and rub it well with a clean towel. You can put produce in your salad spinner, spray it all over, let it sit for a few minutes, then soak it in cold water before draining and spinning off the water. Use vinegar spray to sanitize your cutting board between foods, clean the counter, etc.

2. Buy a tub, salad spinner, or large bowl that fits in your sink, and a brush for scrubbing produce. There are rubber tubs that are made for popping in there to wash dishes. You can keep this tub and use it to mix up a vinegar and water solution and submerge your produce in it. Lettuce and greens, soaked for two minutes, are as safe as you are going to get. The bonus is that a soaking also removes pesticide residue as well as anything else, too. A good scrub with a brush helps with things like carrots, squashes, etc. Wash your produce, drain on clean kitchen towels, then drain the tub or bowl wash it, and store it ’til next time.

3. Get lots of cotton hand towels and a refillable liquid soap dispenser. Wash your hands every time to touch food, every time you touch your face, just wash your hands alot. Yes, my hands are dry, gnarled, and crack around the fingertips in winter. Moisturize too.

4. Keep cold foods cold, warm foods warm. Any stray bacteria that may make it into your food will  reproduce and flourish between 40 and 140 degrees F. Best to keep any stragglers in check by slowing their progress in the refrigerator. In a nutshell, that is all you need to know.