I was about five, yet remember the night clearly. The evening had just begun and as it moved on by, each one of us started a fever and an ongoing upset stomach. By bedtime, our whole family was in the living room on sofas and roll out beds, sick.
What we later figured out was that we were experiencing the result of food poisoning, from eating grapes, my mother had not taken the time to wash.
With that experience on her mind, my mother impressed upon all her children the value of washing and scrubbing produce before eating it. We washed everything and scrubbed the tougher fruits and vegetables like potatoes and apples.
Wash to help reduce pesticides and herbicide sprays: The necessity of washing produce is further compacted in our day with the knowledge of the dangers of ingesting herbicides and pesticides which are used on all fruits and vegetables. Yes, even organic produces sprayed with certain pesticides and herbicides that may cause bodily harm.
Wash to remove wax coatings: Many fruits and some vegetables are also covered with a thin coating of wax to preserve shelf life and protect the skin. Though it is a consumable wax, the pesticides and herbicides sprayed underneath are not, and fruits need to be scrubbed to remove the wax and sprays.
Wash to remove dirt: Although dirt in its most basic form is not extremely harmful, no one wants to crunch into lettuce and get granules of sand between their teeth from poor washing. Just the other day, I washed a peach rather poorly, and nibbled off a bit of bird dropping with my first bite. It was most unpleasant. Root vegetables grow in dirt, I have been surprised how much dirt is in the sink after I wash a pound of potatoes. It really did not look like they were that dirty.
Wash to remove bacteria and viruses: Produce can come into the store germ ridden, but germs are also added to fresh produce as it is handled by grocery store workers and costumers. Yes, even the sneezes and coughs of people can land upon fresh produce at a grocery store. I have had a tot or two grab something from the grocery cart and had to put it back, hoping whoever came along after me would have the sense to wash it.
HOW: Produce does not need fancy washes and soaps to clean. Abrasion is the best tool for cleaning off unwanted substances from most produce. A scrub with a good vegetable brush or microfiber washrag will remove nearly anything one would not want to ingest.
WHAT: Cold water is usually the best choice to wash produce, since hot water can damage fruits and vegetables.
WHEN: Produce is best washed before being prepared to eat, since washing it too early will allow any remaining organisms time to reproduce.