Imitate a Raccoon; Wash your ProduceRaccoons like to wash their food before they eat it, even washing fish and mussels just taken out of the water. They diligently swish their dinner in a stream, or even their water dish when caged. You should see a raccoon try to wash soft white bread!
It would do us good to follow their example. Fruit, vegetables and even meat are usually somewhat contaminated with pesticides, molds and/or germs. In the past year there have been various scares about apples, berries, melons and more. Is worry about contaminants in our food supply simply hysteria? Or is there reason for concern?
In the United States, we enjoy cleaner, safer food than in most other parts of the world. The US Department of Agriculture insists our food supply is safe. The FDA, in fact, has a food safety hotline to inform and deal with rumors: 1-800-332-4010, open from noon to 4PM weekdays for public inquiries. There is also a Government Food Safety Information site that gives useful information.
Sometimes things aren't what they seem: this past winter an organization that tests peanut butter for harmful aflatoxins, produced by mold, claimed that the lowest concentration was found in commercially produced peanut butter and the highest in peanut butter ground on the spot, presumably because the peanuts were stored longer before grinding.
Despite growers' and government agencies' assurances, the truth is that all contamination is impossible to avoid. Expensive organic foods are out the reach of most cooks, and the sad fact is that without pesticides, shipping and storage (which can promote growth of molds and insect contamination) there wouldn't be enough food produced to go around. In other words, we either have to deal with some contamination, or experience famine or at least food scarcity and lack of variety. It's a trade-off.
I feel that contamination in the USA is on the increase again in the past few years. With free trade laws, more and more food is coming in largely uninspected from third world countries. In Miami recently an outbreak of typhoid was traced to frozen imported mamey pulp, a fruit ingredient popular with Hispanics for making "batidos", a kind of fruit milkshake. Tomatoes and berries from other countries were also found to be contaminated with pesticides and germs, and a while back melons from Texas spread salmonella. Strawberries supplied to a California school system were discovered to be contaminated with a disease-causing organism.
This isn't surprising. Land owners in poor countries rarely provide portable potties for their workers, who often are required to work fast and put in long hours to buy even the barest necessities for their families. In other words, a long trek to the edge of the field or the nearest bathroom is a luxury that is unaffordable; there's no toilet paper and no place to wash hands. The result is often contamination of foods with human disease germs. I personally bought a watermelon once that, upon examination (the nose knows), appeared to have dried human waste on the bottom. Yuck!!!
One solution, if you can find them in your market, is to buy brand name products that are dedicated to using an absolute minimum of pesticides, such as Foxy Free Range Vegetables.
An article in the March 1999 Consumer's Union magazine concludes that growing children especially are exposed to unacceptable levels of some potentially very harmful pesticides. The biggest offenders were apples, grapes, green beans, peaches, pears, spinach and winter squash. Reports by other agencies have criticized pesticide levels on lettuce and celery. Some individuals engage in real scare tactics to wake people up to possible dangers.
One watchdog agency, the Environmental Working Group, has a beautiful site called All You Can Eat, offering hints, guidelines, and estimates of your total pesticide intake.
There's a great deal you can do to keep your family's food safer from these contaminants; wash thoroughly, peel, brush or scrape and store with care. Non-toxic, organic detergents made especially for washing produce can help significantly to loosen germs and pesticides, not only making food safer but extending the storage life of the produce with vegetable wash concentrates that can be added to water or diluted and sprayed onto fruits or vegetables before washing. See hints for safer handling for different kinds of produce: Are your fruits and veggies safe to eat?
Be safe; make like a raccoon and wash your food. You owe it to yourself and your family.