I’m confused! I know I should wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, so should I also wash raw meats and poultry?
The short answer: Wash produce, not meat!
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES are considered ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. You can purchase them from a store or farm market and eat them without further baking, cooking, etc. However, because there was no “kill step” and you are not doing any further processing, the produce can have dirt, bacteria, or pesticide residue on its exterior from the ground or any contact made along the supply chain – including handling by others in the store. For that reason, it is important to wash produce under running water, use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce, and wipe dry to further reduce bacteria.
Washing fruits and vegetables is important even if you will be peeling them, as cutting into an unwashed piece of fruit or vegetable can transfer germs to the inside. It is recommended that you not use bleach, disinfectant or other soaps or detergents as produce is porous and these can be absorbed into the fruit or vegetable and cause illness. However, if the product is processed and the label states that it has been washed (often even triple washed!), it is recommended that you not wash it again, as that adds an unnecessary contamination risk.
RAW MEATS AND POULTRY also can harbor harmful bacteria. However, washing it under running water will not kill the bacteria. Rather, it is the cooking of the meats to the proper, safe temperature that is the only reliable way to kill the foodborne illness-causing pathogens, which can include Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, etc.
In fact, when meat is washed, the contaminated water can splash around the sink and onto the counter and other surfaces, as well as utensils, nearby food, etc. It can then multiply and contaminate foods later prepared on the surfaces, with the utensils, etc., leading to foodborne illness. In a USDA observational study, 60% of the participants who washed raw poultry had bacteria in/around the sink afterward, and 14% had the bacteria remain even after washing or sanitizing the sink.
In summary: Washing fruits and vegetables will mitigate the risk of surface contamination, while it is the cooking of poultry and meats that mitigates their contamination risk.