Is Bleach a Solution for Safer Salads?

GourmetGourmetKemp Minifie, Gourmet Live

"You soak your produce in Clorox?" my friends exclaimed. "That's totally insane!" I thought so, too, when my husband came home from a naturopath visit two years ago with a mind-numbing list of guidelines. Of all the naturopath's edicts, drowning our fruits and vegetables in a Clorox solution was the one we had the hardest time wrapping our heads around.

The naturopath maintained that Clorox helps remove contaminants such as pesticide residues, bacteria, and fungus. Only use regular Clorox brand, he warned us, because it is free of scents and other unwanted additives to the basic bleaching agent, sodium hypochlorite.

The amount of Clorox in the naturopath's recipe was so tiny--1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon for every gallon of water, followed by a 10- to 15-minute soak in plain water, plus a rinse--that we decided to give it a try. We were relieved to find that we didn't detect any hint of bleach in the flavor of the produce, whether eaten raw or cooked. In fact, the food seemed to taste fresher than ever. Two years later, the Clorox-solution soak remains a routine chez Minifie.

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The recent outbreak of a new and nasty strain of toxic E. coli in Europe, a reminder of the 2006 E. coli scourge in the United States, got me wondering whether our habit of soaking produce could provide some measure of protection against these fierce pathogens. Then came Elisabeth Rosenthal's article in The New York Times, "E. Coli Fallout: My Salad, My Health". Rosenthal wrote that while living on assignment in China, her family soaked the produce they planned to eat raw in a diluted solution of dish detergent or bleach for 20 minutes before rinsing. Rosenthal told me that friends in Beijing had taught her the trick, but no one she knew had ever checked the science behind it. Anecdotally, though, she noted that "in six years (with two little kids), we happily ate fruits and vegetables. And no one ever got sick."

Peace Corps volunteers are instructed to do something similar in countries where food hygiene is a challenge, according to Kelly McCormack, a spokesperson for the organization. The Corps' medical officers typically advise volunteers to first wash their produce with soap and water, then soak it for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 gallon of water. The Clorox Company does not include soaking fresh produce among the many disinfectant uses for varying bleach solutions listed on its consumer Web site. However, when contacted with a question on this topic, Vikki Whyte, a Consumer Services representative with the company, acknowledged that Clorox Regular Bleach in a water solution can be used to "sanitize," but is not strong enough to disinfect, she emphasized, the surface of fruits and vegetables.

The process Whyte described starts with washing one's produce thoroughly. Next, she specified a solution of 1/2 teaspoon Clorox Regular Bleach to 1 gallon of water (a significantly lower concentration than the Peace Corps' formula, but right in line with the naturopath's) and a soaking time of only two minutes, followed by a rinse. Two minutes seemed awfully short compared with the Peace Corps' 15 minutes and the 10 to 15 minutes mandated by our naturopath, but Whyte maintained that longer soaking "does not ensure more bacteria and viruses will be killed."

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For the solution to be effective, Whyte continued, the bleach has to be an EPA-registered one, such as Clorox. Whyte also made the important distinction that the solution cannot protect against pathogens that are absorbed inside the produce, as may occur when plants come into contact with contaminated irrigation water. And her department had "no data" on whether the soak kills surface-lying 0104:H4 and 0157:H7 E. coli specifically.

The FDA had a different response to my query about soaking fresh produce in a bleach solution. "Household bleach is not intended for use on foods," stated Stephanie Yao, a press spokesperson for the agency; the EPA must approve any such labeling for home use, and has not. So while the government does not endorse using a bleach solution at home, commercial food processors get a green light on similar practices. According to the FDA, commercial packagers of leafy greens vigorously wash them in a solution containing a food-approved form of chlorine sodium hypochlorite, the same ingredient in Clorox. The details get tricky, however: The sodium hypochlorite content varies among brands of bleach, and the pH of the water used can greatly affect a solution's efficacy. Salad packagers have to constantly monitor the water and make adjustments to keep it in the correct pH range. And some pathogens are so adept at attaching themselves to a leaf that they somehow manage to avoid contact with the chlorinated solution.

"Generally, research shows that it is possible to kill or rinse away 90 to 99 percent of the bacteria that are present on leafy greens when they come from the field," Yao reported. Those may sound like impressive statistics, but Yao notes that any harmful bacteria remaining on produce can multiply fast; that's what bacteria do best.

For many of us, scare stories and statistics can lead to paralysis in the supermarket produce aisle. The upshot? You can't eliminate all the risks associated with eating raw fruits and vegetables, but you can reduce them, and the FDA Web site provides detailed tips on this topic.

Don't forget that good-quality packaged greens have likely already been through a chlorinated wash. And though the FDA and EPA may not approve of a homemade Clorox bath for your fruits and veggies, plenty of Peace Corps volunteers and other expats (not to mention yours truly) have used varying concentrations of such a solution for years;
we'll leave it up to you to decide whether to adopt the practice. Whatever you do, keep in mind Yao's final recommendation: "The risks associated with not eating any fresh fruits or vegetables outweigh the risks of getting ill."

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