Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Q & A: To Clean or Not to Clean?

Produce maestro and FoodDay's "In Season" columnist Pete Peterson had a question from a reader that prompted a response he thought GSNW readers might be interested in. Do you have an opinion on the issue? Leave a comment below!

Q: Especially during the season when one cannot know the point of origin of produce, I like to rigorously clean produce before using/storing. I have sometimes used vinegar. Does that help? Do you have any recommendations on this subject?

A: Your question is, perhaps unwittingly, a provocative one. Because of that I want to emphasize my answer is one with which I'm certain some folks will disagree. Also, the column I write is a freelance effort, so my opinions here are unrelated to The Oregonian and FoodDay.

My experience suggests there is next to nothing to be gained by application of any foreign substance to cleanse fresh produce. As for vigorous rubbing, I doubt that accomplishes much either. I rinse my vegetables and fruit under cool water. Anything with open pores (carrots, spuds and the like) gets a gentle scrub. Absent some specific recipe requirement or presentation issue, I nearly always eat fruit (some citrus excepted) and veg unpeeled. The peels often contain significant amounts of nutrients and, of course, fiber.

As I say, these are my ideas, but the prep techniques I use are influenced by my 35-plus years of practical experience. During that time, various agencies tested produce from the racks and warehouses where I worked, as well as those I owned and managed. In only one case, involving winter squash, was there ever a trace of pesticide residue. In that situation, the residue was contained in the flesh.

The problem with pesticide use, as I see it, is the effect of the residue on the people who apply it and that which is left to creep into our water system. It's there where the trouble lies and it's where we should put our efforts to promote use of as little pesticide as possible.

Leave your suggestions for cleaning produce by clicking on the "Comments" link below.


Anonymous said...

I think Pete Peterson is way too dismissive of the presence of residues on fruits and vegetables. Pesticide residues vary by crop, and are a real issue.

The Environmental Working Group collected various agency data from the testing of pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. You can see the results and analysis or view the full data set. This list allows people to evaluate the residue levels in various crops.

The most effective means of reducing pesticide exposure is to avoid foods with residues. There are widely varying opinions as to whether pesticide residues are a health concern. With little effort, people can find a range of views, from those funded by the chemical industry to those presented by nonprofit public interest groups.

I agree with Peterson regarding the use of vinegar and other cleaning agents. Farm chemicals are a complex group. Some stay on the surface and others are systemic and absorbed into the plant tissue. Some are water based, others oil based. There is no magic cleaning solution.

- Anthony Boutard, Ayers Creek Farm

Anonymous said...

My comments, as I noted, are anecdotal. The science behind the data expressed on the website to which Anthony refers lacks easy accessibility but it's probably there someplace. I’d bet that the “detectable levels” measure the total fruit and probably fail to distinguish between surface and flesh contamination.

The original question that prompted my comment related to surface prep. I stand by my skepticism about washing and it sounds like Anthony agrees.

Some species of fruit and vegetables have the capacity to suck up pesticides and store it. Winter squash is a prime example. The lone pesticide issue I’ve seen in my experience arose in a transition-to-certified-organic crop. Records for a piece of ground where the squash were planted went back over 10 years, during most of which the ground lay fallow. During active growing seasons in that term no pesticides were applied. The ground was tested before the squash was planted and there was no detectable pesticide residue.

The squash “found” the pesticide and gobbled it up. I’m unable to recall the chemical compound that was found. Just like Anthony Boutard and Your Kitchen Garden [of Canby - KAB] and lots of other local folks, the grower was a reputable farmer whom I knew well so that farm’s bona fides as an organic producer were well documented.

Wash your produce. Encourage, with your purchases, the production of fruit and vegetables under certified organic conditions. Buy local as much as you can. Support stores that maintain good local connections to sources.

Note: agricultural products labeled “organic” originate from farms or handling operations certified by a certifying agent accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The terms sustainable, bio-dynamic, pesticide free, intensive pest management, approved by the Food Alliance and a host of other phrases are meaningless and may violate Oregon statute if used to market fresh produce as equivalent to certified organic.

Pretty easy to say, "I'm a sustainable grower or I don't use pesticides." Well, get certified and then you can advertise it. Otherwise, smile and say I like growing produce locally.

The organic movement survives on definable standards and there are a lot of efforts to dilute the definition (including in the 2009 Oregon legislature). All the other adjectives are important, but mean different things to different people. Many growers avoid the organic registration because of money and record keeping issues. Some, Valley Cove Citrus being an excellent example, just dislike outside interference and are fiercely independent. Those folks, at least, are honest about it.

Others, whom I'll name another time, just look for a marketing edge and could not care less about the "sustainability" issue.

- Pete Peterson