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Does Washing Lettuce Get Rid of Bacteria?

As the recall of tainted romaine lettuce expands, many plates could be devoid of the crisp veggie in an effort to stay healthy. That might be a good idea, according to experts who say that washing produce, even very carefully, may not remove all the bacteria present.

At least 19 people became sick last week including three with life-threatening symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne disease occur each year in the United States, according to the CDC, and the bacteria that cause these illnesses, such as Salmonella or E. coli, can hang on tight to food even through a washing.

"If you've got bacteria on the surface of fruits and vegetables, and you give them a wash with cold water, it removes some of what's on the surface," said Brendan Niemira of the USDA's Microbial Food Safety Unit in Pennsylvania. "Unfortunately, it [cold water rinsing] doesn't remove all of them, and that's a problem. If things are well-attached or living in a tight-knit community called a biofilm, that's going to be hard to get rid of."

Rough surfaces, like those on cantaloupes and spinach, provide lots of nooks and crannies in which bacteria can hide out, Niemira said. Tomatoes are much smoother, though their surfaces do contain tiny pores that make homes for bacteria.
 
 

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