This spring, millions of Americans worried that salad was no longer safe to eat: The U.S. was hit by the largest E. coli outbreak in a decade, with 172 people in 32 states sickened by contaminated romaine lettuce. Eighty-nine of those individuals were hospitalized, and at least five died.
Would rinsing lettuce have prevented the outbreak? Likely not, because the E. coli organism that caused the outbreak is so hardy that only a few bacteria are necessary to cause illness. And E. coli can survive in frozen or refrigerated temperatures. It is only destroyed through cooking or pasteurization, according to Colorado State University.
Rinsing does help prevent other illnesses associated with food. But it can sometimes cause more problems by splashing bacteria onto sinks and countertops. As summer and outdoor eating events beckon, here are some tips on what foods to rinse, how to rinse, and why.
- Rinse your rice. Rice is grown in flooded paddy fields, and naturally takes up arsenic in the water and soil. According to plant and soil scientist Andrew Meharg, author of the book Arsenic & Rice, soaking rice overnight, then rinsing thoroughly, reduces arsenic by up to half. If you wish to flush out another 30 percent of the remaining arsenic, cook the rice in five parts water to one part rice. In addition, rinsing rice helps remove some of the starch that can cause it to get gummy when cooking. Keep in mind that rinsing rice may reduce the levels of folate, iron, niacin and thiamin, by 50 to 70 percent, according to the Food and Drug Administration, and that the largest risk for arsenic exposure from rice is for those who eat it several times a day.
- Rinse beans and grains, especially if you suffer from celiac disease. Rinsing grains removes debris and dirt. Rinsing is especially important for those suffering from celiac disease. Recent studies, which NPR reported on last April, suggest that accidental gluten exposure, even among celiacs following a gluten-free diet, is more common than thought. One way to be "glutened" is through inadvertent cross contamination of a gluten-free food. Grains and beans may be grown near wheat, barley, or rye; they may also be rotated with those gluten-containing crops; or they may become contaminated during processing, transport and packaging. In fact, it's even legal for some beans to contain stray grains: The Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration allows lentils to contain a percentage of foreign grains.
- Wash your produce thoroughly. Back in 2005, dietitian Sandria Goodwin and her colleagues at Tennessee State University examined different home washing methods for produce. They found that soaking apples, tomatoes and lettuce in water and then rinsing thoroughly under running water significantly reduced the amount of microorganisms present. However, Goodwin tells NPR that, "Nothing makes produce completely harmless except sterilization (which changes quality characteristics), so if people want to consume raw foods, there is always a risk." Case in point: the E. coli outbreak we mentioned above.
- Don't rinse your chicken. As NPR reported five years ago, rinsing raw chicken before cooking it is a "bad idea, because it raises the risk of spreading dangerous bacteria found on raw poultry all over your kitchen" Back then, the advice provoked a "small #chickensh*tstorm," since chicken washing was so common — even Julia Child recommended it, saying she thought it was safer. The advice not to rinse your chicken still holds today, according to Cleveland Clinic dietitian Laura Jeffers, who writes in a list of food prep do's and don't's: "Any bacteria will be killed during the cooking process." Cooking the bird to an internal temperature of 165 degrees is sufficient. Similar rules apply for all raw meat and for eggs: Don't wash, but do cook to the appropriate temperature.
- Other useful advice: Clean your counter tops, cutting boards and utensils with hot soapy water before peeling or cutting produce. Wash your own hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before preparing food. Use a vegetable brush to scrub produce with a hard rind or firm skin, such as potatoes, carrots, melons and apples. Make sure your washing water is at least 10 degrees colder than your produce, to inhibit bacteria further. Patting dry with paper towels helps reduce bacterial load. Chemical washes, bleaches or detergents are not recommended by the FDA, as produce may absorb them.
While our food supply is among the safest in the world, bad things sometimes happen. Most healthy people will completely recover from a foodborne illness within a short period of time.