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washing lettuce

Checking for Bugs

From those wonderful folks who brought you environmental protection come the bugs.  Lots of bugs in our fruits and vegetables cavorting free from fear of pesticides.  It's a new phenomenon but an old problem.  The Torah lays down the law in Vayikra 11:41-47.  All kinds of bugs are forbidden whether creeping, crawling, swimming, flying, or walking...on four legs or more.  We have a chiuv of bedika, an obligation to find them in our food...if they're likely to be there. 

If the chances are likely, better than even that bugs are lurking, we have to check.  If unlikely, not.  And, if we think just this time it might be likely when other times it's unlikely, we need to check this time.  We can, therefore, divide all fruits and vegetables into categories of likely and unlikely. 

What we're looking for are whole bugs in any of its life forms from egg to adult (not body parts) that can be seen with the naked eye.  After a year a dead bug is presumed to have disintegrated and is botul.  Similarly, in a jar of jelly, chopped into nothing it's also botul. It's the form of the bug that's ossur, not the substance.  There are bugs in the field which crawl into the plant, and bugs in the packing shed that crawl into the bags.

The Setup

You'll need some inexpensive equipment you can pick up at the dollar store:  3 deep white translucent plastic bowls; a white translucent plastic tub turned upside down over a 100 watt CFL to be used as a light box; a colender; a strainer with some old (but clean) undershirting material stretched over it; a bug release agent of your choice; and a sink (not shown).  It's a good idea to set the lightbulb and socket in a small dish, just in case the counter gets wet.  Important safety tip: plug the light into a GFCI outlet so if it does short out with you touching it, you won't die.  The entire batterie d'badikus is shown below.

The purpose of the agent is to irritate or slip the bug off the leaf or whatever it's clinging to.  The irritants include acids such as lemon (citric) or vinegar (acetic) and salt, which annoy the bugs and cause them to let go.  Dilute dishwashing detergent and special food service veggie wash cause the leaf to become slippery and the bugs  to slip right off.  This does not work for bugs which bore into the leaf and cannot be dislodged with soap, but can be otherwise irritated.  We prefer lemon juice because it attacks all bugs, washes off easily, and doesn't taste bad if not completely rinsed.

The Process

There are five discrete operations, not all of which are used for every fruit or vegetable, and the whole thing can be stated in summary form.

   1)  special preparation required if any
    2) the pre-wash check by immersion and agitation in clear water,
    3) washing in agent: acid, salt, or soap
    4) rinsing by immersion in cold running water,
    5) the post-wash check by either
        5a) checking against a back-light,
        5b) checking with a front-light, or
        5c) immersion and agitation in clear water.

Basic Principle: bugs let go in the agent, drown in the water, wash away in the rinse

(1) Special preparation includes cutting the bottoms off lettuce, the stems from herbs, discarding the outer leaves of cabbage, washing the dirt off spinach and celery, cutting the tops off strawberries, etc.

The (2) pre-wash check is used for chazaka checking.  Three heads of lettuce, for example, are selected from a lot of 10 cases.  The leaves of each head are detached, immersed, and agitated in the clear water sitting in a bowl atop a light box.  If no bugs are found in the water and no bugs are spotted on the leaves by checking directly against the lightbox, it is assumed all the rest of the lettuce is free of bugs and does not have to be checked.  This is really only applicable in a commercial setting, and it's rare that the check works out.

We recommend (3) washing and (4) rinsing everything, likely or unlikely.  Set a bucket in each side of the sink.  Fill the one on the right with cold water and squirt in at least two glugs of lemon juice...add in a couple of pours of salt for good measure.  Set another bucket on the left with the cold water running continuously into it.

The most important thing to keep in mind when washing is...bugs drown in water.  They are air-breathers and if submerged long enough, they die.  Do not wash in running's the equivalent of water-boarding...because the bugs do not die, they live to fight another day. 

The (5) post-wash check assumes one of three forms: 5a) back-lit inspection using the light box for anything translucent like lettuce; 5b) front-lit inspection for anything opaque like berries; 5c) immersion in clear water for anything uncheckable by other means like parsley.  To Checkthe water to see what you've shaken loose place the bowl on the lightbox.

The Application

Using the number of each operation noted above, we'll detail the likelihood of find bugs and the procedure for a variety of common fruits and vegetables commonly found in our kitchens.  Although those in the "unlikely" categories don't usually need special checking and washing, it's a good idea to examine everything.  Sweet potatoes, cabbage, and many other fruits and vegetables are attacked by boring insects that leave distinctive neat round holes indicating their presence...and requiring your special attention and treatment.

(likely) BERRIES...straw, black, but not rasp
    1) cut tops off stawberries, otherwise leaves require careful checking
    3) wash in lemon juice, being careful not to abrade berries against each other while agitating
    4) rinse
    5b) front-light check if leaves on
(likely) LETTUCE...any kind of leafy veg, full heads
    1) cut or core bottom of head to release leaves
    3) wash in lemon juice, fully immersing leaves
    4) rinse
    5a) check on lightbox
(likely) LETTUCE...bagged, no hechsher
    3) wash pieces, immersing fully

    4) rinse
    5c) checking not practical or necessary

Try to buy produce that's been at least partially washed and prepared such as this bag of romaine lettuce from Walmart.  Most of the bushy outer leaves have already been stripped off.  Cut the bottom 2" or so off and discard.  Bugs like to socialize near the bottom of the stalk where it grows out of the ground, and you'll be way ahead by getting them out of the way before you proceed.

Note:  Bags of so-called triple-washed lettuce and baby spinach usually contain small black flies and must be washed and rinsed, although checking is impractical and probably unnecessary.  The open air packing sheds are located near the fields.  Culled, bruised, and rotting vegetables pile up in dumpsters nearby, attracting lots of flies.  The freshly washed vegetables go into the bags, and so do the flies.

(unlikely) SCALLIONS LEEKS..
    1) split three longitudinally and wash out dirt
    2) eyeball for embedded bugs, if none don't cut anymore
    3) wash all anyway
    4) rinse all

(likely) CAULIFLOWER, BROCCOLI...     
    1) core and cut into florets
    3) wash using a plate to push underwater
    4) rinse
    5c) swish in clear water
(likely) HERBS, parsley, cilantro, etc...
    1) cut off stems and detach bunches
    3) wash (use collendar)
    4) rinse
    5c) swish in clear water

(unlikely) CABBAGE, white, red, bokchoy
    1) if necessary, core or quarter head to detach leaves
    2) check for bore holes or other signs of insect activity
    3) wash leaves
    4) rinse
    5a) check leaves against lightbox

(unlikely) CELERY...
    1) separate stalks, leaves, wash dirt off stalks, treat leaves like lettuce
    3) wash leaves
    4) rinse leaves

The process of fruit and vegetable washing gets more complicated and problematic by the day.  We recommend consulting the Star-K website for detailed information and methods for each and every species.