A Food and Drug Administration study highlights differences in how consumers wash their produce, and despite a national foodborne illness outbreak linked to cantaloupe, fewer consumers reported washing them.

Study looks at consumers' fresh produce washing practicesThe study, “Consumer Vegetable and Fruit Washing Practices in the United States,” part of FDA’s 2006 and 2010 food safety surveys, Linda Verrill, researchers with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition looked at how consumers handled produce.

The telephone study, published in the April issue of Food Protection Trends, echoed earlier consumer food safety attitudes and behavior research that found difference in how demographic subgroups handle produce.

The study included a series of questions about purchasing and washing strawberries, tomatoes, cantaloupe and bagged lettuce/salads.

In 2006, 98% of surveyed consumers said they wash strawberries, 97% washed tomatoes, 57% washed cantaloupes and 54% washed bagged lettuce.

Overall, more women than men wash cantaloupe and more men than women wash fresh-cut lettuce.

Men without a high school diploma were more than twice as likely as male college graduates to wash cantaloupe while female cantaloupe buyers who prepare the family’s main meal were 1,417 times as likely to wash cantaloupe compared to other female cantaloupe buyers.

“Because a number of large, national foodborne illness outbreaks associated with produce occurred between 2006 and 2010, including one implicating cantaloupes from Honduras in 2008, we expected an increase in the number of consumers who washed cantaloupes,” the researchers wrote. “In fact, we observed a decrease in the percent of consumers who reported washing cantaloupes, and equally as important, there was a decrease in the percent who reported scrubbing cantaloupe under running water.”

The study also found a decrease in the percentage of consumers who believe that fresh-cut lettuce is washed.

Researchers found non-Hispanic black and Hispanic women were more likely than their white counterparts to wash bagged lettuce and to wash cantaloupe.

The authors conclude that “education should focus on non-Hispanic white consumers and those with higher educations who as a group are less likely than non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics to wash fruit. Those with lower education, men and non-whites may benefit from campaigns that include information about avoiding washing vegetables that are labeled as already washed.”