How to Kill E. coli on Vegetables

Can bleach, iodine, or vinegar kill E. coli on fresh produce? Is it safe to eat raw vegetables?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #143

Does Irradiation Kill E. Coli?

There are really only two reliable ways to kill E. coli in food: irradiation and cooking.  I talked about the pros and cons of irradiation in a recent article.  Although irradiation is both safe and effective, it is not widely used in the U.S., largely because consumers don’t yet feel comfortable with the technology.  (Organic certification also prohibits irradiation of foods.)

Is it Safe to Eat Raw Vegetables?

So, do we need to say good-bye to salads and other raw vegetables forever? Not necessarily. I think it’s a matter of understanding and managing the risks. Overall, your chances of being infected with E. coli or other dangerous food-borne pathogens from raw vegetables are quite small.  Nonetheless, small children, the elderly, pregnant women, and others with weakened immune systems might have a much harder time fighting off a food-borne pathogen. If your resistance is lowered—or you simply want to reduce your risk of being infected to zero—avoid all uncooked fruits and vegetables, as well as unpasteurized dairy products, and be sure that all eggs, meat, and fish are cooked thoroughly.

See also: Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy

Even if you're hale, hearty, and risk-tolerant, it would probably be wise to avoid raw vegetables and fruits if some sort of contamination is reported or suspected—such as during an active outbreak—until the source is identified.  Otherwise, I think the nutritional benefits—not to mention the culinary pleasures—of fresh raw fruits and vegetables generally outweigh the small risk.
See also: Benefits of a Raw Food Diet

How to Wash Your Vegetables

Even though it is no guarantee against E. coli, you still want to wash raw fruits and vegetables well before you eat them. If you want to use something more than tap water, I recommend distilled white vinegar. It’s inexpensive, safe, and effective in reducing surface dirt, wax, and pesticide residues. Vinegar can even kill some germs.

See also: A Cheaper Way to Clean Your Vegetables

Also, don’t discount the value of a little elbow grease. Rubbing produce vigorously with your hands or scrubbing with a soft brush is a good way to remove dirt. Just be sure your hands and/or vegetable brush are clean so that you don’t end up transferring dirt or bacteria to the produce. 

One last tip: If you do use bleach, iodine, or another sanitizing agent on your veggies, be sure to rinse them thoroughly before eating them. In particular, Dr. Brackett recommends against using dish or hand soap to clean produce because they commonly contain ingredients that can make you sick to your stomach if ingested.

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More information on the recent E. coli outbreak (IFIC Foundation)
E. Coli Fallout: My Salad, My Health (New York Times)

Broccoli image courtesy of Shutterstock


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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