A tale of pre-washed produce.
A story about the acid that sanitized my organic lettuce and the worker whose lungs it irritated.
Recently, I learned that produce is washed in a sanitizer before it makes its way to the grocery store. There are differences between how certain veggies or fruits are washed, but for the most part all of them go through a multiple step washing process. One of the steps in that process involves an approved 'food grade' sanitizer solution. The organic stuff receives the same treatment. I never noticed until a couple weeks ago, that the organic spinach in our fridge says "Grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers." But, what it doesn't tell us is how it is washed in some of the stuff before it makes it to our table.
This new knowledge troubled me, I felt duped and ignorant. This motivated me to look into the matter more closely. I found that this whole process is very water intensive. All of this is done in the name of food safety which is of course important but then I thought about the home gardener, producers at the farmers market and about all of us eaters. Aren't we advised to wash our produce at home anyway? Admittedly, the messages we receive about washing our food before we eat it are mixed and this creates confusion but I imagine nonetheless a fair few of us are still washing our produce before we eat it.
I saw one figure that showed as much as 4 gallons per pound of spinach is used from harvest to grocery store. That's after the plant has been grown. And, to think that California growers are being rationed by the state on the water they are allowed to use to grow food. You've probably seen the label on some veggie or lettuce mix you enjoy that reads 'triple washed'. That's refers to one wash to remove the field dirt and debris, a second wash that has a sanitizer solution in it to kill bacteria, fungi and other pathogens that could potentially lead to food borne illnesses and a third wash to remove the pesticide from the food. The water has to be constantly renewed, particularly so at the stage that has the sanitizer because organic matter, ph and temperature changes to the wash water can alter the effectiveness or safety of the solution.
Chlorine is one type of sanitizer that is sometimes used in this process but upon a little deeper digging I found another chemical called peracetic acid (PAA). This chemical is celebrated in the industry for the wide spectrum of bad things that it kills, its varied useful applications and at the same time it's low toxicity or harm that it does to the environment. So much faith is placed in the safety of this chemical that it's not even required that the food be rinsed after its applied. I thought it sounded to good to be true. So, it's great at killing the things we want it to but doesn't then go down stream and harm additional living systems? Really?
As far as I can tell, that's pretty much true. But there is at least one glaring issue with PAA.
You wouldn't want to be one of the workers that has to be near the stuff before it's applied to the wash and produce it's disinfecting. It poses a risk to those that have to be around it from the time it's created to the time it breaks down into its less harmful component parts after its use. Being around PAA for as long as three minutes at certain concentrations can result in irritation to the eyes, lungs and skin. In one study which involved a higher level of exposure, after an hour and twenty five minutes workers reported "extreme discomfort and unbearable irritation."
Very little research has been done to determine conclusively what effects PAA has on humans in terms of its carcinogenicity, genotoxicity, and reproductive toxicity. Additionally, little is known about the effects of repeated or prolonged exposure to PAA. However, in studies conducted on rats, they did not fair well. This is despite the fact that peracetic acid is not a new chemical and was first registered with the EPA in 1985. Furthermore, awareness of the problems surrounding inhalation and environmental concerns for workers around PAA are also not new. As of this writing, there are no laws that protect workers from excessive or prolonged exposure to PAA. There are guidelines regarding levels of exposure that will likely cause harm but PAA as it floats around in the air is particularly difficult to isolate and measure accurately so enforcement of any such guidelines is impractical at best.
All of this information has, as you might imagine, only added fuel to the fire of my passion for local food systems. A linchpin of the current industrial food system is the lack of accountability that allows so many individuals to be harmed by unintended consequences of decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time. There are all of these hidden realities that are kept from our eyes (on purpose no doubt) but I'm tired of placing my trust in this system. It's time to cut out the middle men and take back some sense of responsibility for where our food comes from and how it gets to our tables. Let's open our eyes and wash our own veggies.