The Checkout

Food Product's a Wash

Ever since E. coli was found to have hitched a ride on some spinach last week into the digestive tracts of scores of unfortunate people, I've found myself wondering about food wash.

Before we begin, a brief primer on E. coli:

There are hundreds of kinds of this bacterium that is found in the intestines of humans and animals. The kind involved in the outbreak is E. coli O157:H7. It produces toxins and within a couple days of exposure can cause abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and a fever. Healthy adults usually get better within a week. Young children and the elderly, however, can develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure and even death.

It's a nasty bug. And besides hamburgers at Jack in the Box, it's turned up in such non-meaty places as juice, alfalfa sprouts, raw milk, and lettuce.

There are a variety of washes for produce on the market such as Procter & Gamble's Fit, Nature Clean Fruit & Vegetable Wash, and CitroBio Food Wash. They are designed mainly to wash away pesticides and not to protect you from salmonella, listeria or E. coli. Fit and Nature Clean don't claim to stop food-borne illnesses either.

CitroBio, however, does.

On its Web site, the Sarasota, Fla.-based company says: "Citrobio Food Wash is all natural and has FDA/GRAS-approved ingredients. ... When used as directed, Citrobio Food Wash is proven effective against food poisoning caused by E.coli, listeria, salmonella and staphylococcus!"

By "FDA/GRAS-approved ingredients," the company means that its ingredients have been deemed by the FDA to be "generally recognized as safe." It even links to a letter from the FDA agreeing with that.

However, the FDA did not approve CitroBio Food Wash's claim that it is effective against bugs that cause food poisoning. In fact, the company can't claim that it "kills" those bacteria.

The company has studies to show it's effective. And it has at least one meat processor, a turkey plant, that uses its products to combat E. coli, according to a fellow who answered the phone at CitroBio headquarters yesterday who said he worked in the plant making the stuff but wouldn't give his name.

The trouble is, with the current E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach, washing won't do you any good. David Acheson, a food safety expert with the agency, said yesterday that it's possible for E. coli to get into the plant. Washing, he said, is effective if the E. coli is on the surface and has been on there only a short time. The longer a plant is contaminated, the harder it is to get off.

Knowing that, you can't be assured that using a product like CitroBio Food Wash would protect you when it really counts.

Have you ever tried a food wash? Would you use one if you knew it worked on E. coli? Post your thoughts here.

By Annys Shin |  September 19, 2006; 9:05 AM ET Consumer Tips
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E. coli (including the O157:H7 variant) is NOT on the outside of affected spinach; it's inside the leaves themselves. Therefore, no amount of washing, with any product, is sufficient. Cooking is sufficient, but then what you get is cooked spinach.

Washing is vital elsewhere in the kitchen, but mostly to avoid cross-contamination. It is common to observe otherwise fastidious cooks prepare raw vegetables using the same utensils and cutting boards that moments before they used to prepare raw meat or poultry.

A plausible (and increasingly likely) cause of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak is organic agriculture. "Synthetic" fertilizer might sound vaguely disturbing to the urban homemaker, but "natural" fertilizer is, well, animal manure.

For more information on the link to organic agriculture, see

Posted by: Richard Belzer | September 19, 2006 9:30 AM

Yeah, those things were big when I was in Mexico. I never used them and I suffered a bit but once I got used to it I was fine. Never heard that they were effective for E. Coli though.

Posted by: huggy | September 19, 2006 9:56 AM

Fighting organisms with chemicals. Hmm, who knows what the chemicals do to you in the long run.

I am sure the food wash ingredients are safe in there small, diluted amounts.
My biggest fear is that our consumption of cleaning products, washes, wipes, etc. just means that there is are large tanks of the ingredient chemicals somewhere with enough of the stuff to wipe out a town should it leak. Also, your cells play some men tricks by storing chemicals for a long time, so those little ammounts can accumulate to big amounts.

Posted by: bkp | September 19, 2006 10:12 AM

I use Fit Fruit and Vegetable Wash (a spray) on produce like apples, peppers, or cucumbers, but more to get rid of the waxy coating that is applied to some produce, and on hard skin melons because I've heard that they should be washed even though you don't eat the rind. Other produce I just wash with water.

There a lot of dangers in life, but food safety risk has enormously declined even in my lifetime, so I'm not going to get into a panic about it.

Posted by: bk | September 19, 2006 10:55 AM

ummm, those products are designed to wash away the money in your wallet.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 19, 2006 11:53 AM

I don't see the point in these products except to get you to spend money. I wash every bit of produce that comes into our home with soap and water (including hard melons and berries). I scrub with a brush or sponge or use the sink sprayer and rinse well. Since I like to buy organic when possible, it is especially important to me, for the reason Mr. Belzer states, to wash fruits and vegetables as well as I can. I also wash it all as soon as I get home from the grocery store, before it touches the refrigerator shelf.

Posted by: College Park Gal | September 19, 2006 12:11 PM

The recent spinach recall reminds us that washing fruits and vegetables is less important than how the food items are grown and treated prior to our consuming them.

For an excellent reference on this subject including a list of the "Dirty Dozen" fruits and vegetables which you should avoid, check out the Environmental Working Group website

Posted by: Foodie in Falls Church | September 19, 2006 1:12 PM

For removing surface nasties I can't think of much of anything better than water with about one tablespoon of bleach to the gallon. Rinse with clean water after soaking for a minute or so.

Posted by: JMcH | September 19, 2006 1:18 PM

I wash all all the fresh fruits and veggies I buy with liquid anti-bacterial hand soap and water. I also immerse berries in soapy water and rinse them thoroughly before eating. I haven't seen any fruit/veg wash at the store. If I did, I'd buy it - better than nothing. I don't see the point of using just water. Washing with just water isn't washing, it's rinsing.

Posted by: Lily | September 19, 2006 1:49 PM

When my wife and I lived in Tokyo in the early 1970s, our land lady cautioned us to always wash fresh vegetables, as many of them were grown with human fertilizer. She gave us a bottle of a mild detergent which she said would do the trick. I don't know whether the fact that we never got sick speaks to the efficacy of the stuff, but we still practice with a dilute solution on things like carrots, leeks, and celery.

Posted by: S. Patten | September 19, 2006 3:03 PM

I used one of the washes when they first came out, but was always curious why use one chemical to get rid of another. I was wondering about it lately though.

Posted by: MD | September 19, 2006 3:51 PM

I, too, use the "Fruit and Vegetable Wash" spray - but on my eyeglasses! It cuts thru the worst grime, just spray, rinse with water and blow dry with compressed air.

Posted by: Larry | September 19, 2006 5:03 PM

This is a job for irradiation. If we were not so well protected from the irradiation devices, we would have a system in place to protect us from e coli and many other food diseases.

Our fear of something that has never harmed us has allowed e coli to kill us.

Posted by: Gary Masters | September 19, 2006 5:09 PM

makes you wonder about the people who harvest our spinach -- do they wash their hands? do they live in substandard housing? do they care at all for food safety?

have you ever been to a local eatery and watched how some of the food handlers while WEARING those protective plastic gloves make change, toss garbage, and then grab your morning bagel WITH THOSE SAME GLOVES ON??

Who cares, huh??!!

Posted by: ACE | September 20, 2006 11:35 AM

Irradiation - sure -- just like those crispy irradiated envelopes-- which are probably safer to eat than most food today.

makes you wonder about the people who harvest our spinach -- do they wash their hands? do they live in substandard housing? do they care at all for food safety?

have you ever been to a local eatery and watched how some of the food handlers while WEARING those protective plastic gloves make change, toss garbage, and then grab your morning bagel WITH THOSE SAME GLOVES ON??

Who cares, huh??!!

Posted by: ACE | September 20, 2006 11:40 AM

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