Maybe I’m paying more attention because I’m pregnant, but there seem to have been far more food recalls this year than before. I don’t usually keep count, but this year has seen recalls on two types of lettuce, pre-cut veggies in some Safeway stores, Ritz and Goldfish crackers, and frozen veggies at Aldi’s. Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. It’s enough to make an expectant mama’s head spin. No one ever shrugs off food poisoning, and those of us with children, even less so. Serious complications aside, vomiting is last on my list of fun family times.
If you’ve ever been pregnant, you know how many foods we are warned against in the name of avoiding food poisoning. No sushi. No lunch meat or hot dogs unless they’ve been warmed to a certain temperature. Nothing with raw or possibly under-cooked eggs. No rare steak. The list of animal-based foods we must avoid seems longer with every pregnancy. Strangely enough, no one has ever warned me to avoid leafy greens during pregnancy due to food poisoning concerns. I’m often urged to eat more salad. However, according to CDC data, leafy greens are the most common food to carry bacteria or viruses associated with food poisoning! Produce alone caused 46% of food poisoning cases that were serious enough to seek medical attention. Illness from produce was most commonly caused by the norovirus.
It’s a frustrating balance. Fruits and vegetables are good for me. I should eat them. However, in terms of food poisoning, they are the biggest risk out there. The good news is that we can at least lower that risk. Just like the risk of contact with salmonella or listeria in chicken, pork, and ground meats can be lowered through proper handling and cooking, proper handling and washing can lower the risk of infection from produce. We can’t just rinse with water, though. Produce must be washed.
We lived through this realization last winter. My three middle children kept getting low-level tummy upset and loose stools. I couldn’t figure it out. It was never the full-blown stomach virus afflicting the schools; no one ever vomited. They just didn’t feel very well. Through the process of elimination, I realized that my middle three weren’t always washing their apples. My oldest was always very careful about it, and I always prepared apples for my youngest. Contamination in the field or on the way to the store aside, there’s no telling who had handled the apples before us and how clean (or not) their hands were. I enforced a much stricter apple-washing regimen, and the tummy aches and lose stools disappeared.
There are some things we don’t want on our food. Microbes are one, but we don’t want soap on them either. Some things that kill viruses and bacteria aren’t safe for human consumption. While vinegar in water is a popular choice for soaking and cleaning edibles, the only studies on vinegar as a disinfectant were for neat (that is, undiluted) vinegar. There was no information I found about how diluted vinegar can be and still be effective against viruses and bacteria. It’s also been found to be ineffective against some bacteria, including MRSA (the bacteria responsible for serious staph infections).
So what’s my choice for a safe, effective produce wash? We aren’t perfect about it, but we strive to wash produce as it comes into the house. For things like lettuce, cherry tomatoes, grapes, and similar produce, we use the Thieves Fruit and Veggie Soak. The produce and water go into a big bowl, and the soak is added. Once it’s done, everything is rinsed, dried (hello, salad spinner), and stored for everyone to eat. For things like apples, large tomatoes, and the like, I use the Thieves Fruit & Veggie Spray. Spritz, rub, rinse, and you’ve got a clean fruit! I’m not allowed to link to the numerous studies showing that the oils in these products are effective. They’re at PubMed. For us it’s an easy way to help lower the risk of food poisoning, and it’s a relief knowing that the wash or spray ingredients won’t cause any harm either.
I’m still being leery of fresh produce right now (especially leafy greens). There have been too many recalls for my comfort while pregnant, so I’m doing many cooked vegetables. However, when I do find myself wanting fresh tomatoes, peppers, or just an apple, I can lower my risk by making sure it’s clean before I take a bite–and the same goes for my family. It’s easy to grab and apple and take a bite, but it’s safer and healthier to give it a good scrub first.