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June 5, 2024 Toxic Exposures Views

Toxic Exposures

Are Your Vegetables Sprayed With Chemicals? 10,000 Stores in U.S. Use Antimicrobial Sprays

Produce Maxx, one of the antimicrobial sprays used on fresh produce, contains hypochlorous acid, a form of free chlorine, at a concentration of 6,000 parts per million (ppm). The CDC limit for free chlorine concentrations in drinking water is only 4 ppm.

vegetables being sprayed at grocery store

Story at a glance:

  • The tiny misters in your grocery store produce section likely contain antimicrobial sprays that could be leaving your fresh fruit and vegetables covered in chemicals — even if they’re organic.
  • Chemstar’s “Sterilox Produce Maxx” product is an antimicrobial fruit and vegetable wash used by more than 50 retail brands across more than 10,000 stores throughout North America.
  • Produce Maxx, which is just one type of antimicrobial spray used on produce, contains hypochlorous acid, a form of free chlorine, at a high concentration of 6,000 parts per million (ppm).
  • For comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends free chlorine concentrations of no more than 4 ppm for maintaining safe drinking water.
  • Grocers use Produce Maxx to keep produce fresher longer and reduce spoilage, but although it’s said to be safe, the health risks to humans are largely unknown.

If you’re looking for fresh, chemical-free produce, your local grocery store may not be the best source. This is particularly true if you’ve noticed its produce section contains tiny misters that spray a fine mist onto fruits and vegetables.

While you may assume this is just water used to keep the produce fresh and moist, many stores actually use antimicrobial sprays that could leave your fresh fruit and vegetables covered in chemicals — even if they’re organic. And if you enjoy eating at salad bars, be aware that it may have been misted, too.

Is your fresh produce covered in an antimicrobial spray?

A viral social media post shed light on the practice of spraying chemicals on organic and conventionally grown produce. It featured photos taken in a Sprouts Farmers Market, which is a chain of health food stores based in Arizona.

There are close to 400 such stores in 23 states. An observant shopper noticed a Sterilox chemical bottle in the produce section and took a picture — prompting Sarah Pope, founder of The Healthy Home Economist, to conduct her own investigation:

“I normally do not shop there, but I stopped in any way to take a look to either confirm or disprove what the social media post was claiming. What I found 100% confirms what I saw on social media. …

“What exactly is the spray bottle hidden above the organic produce at the Sprouts store? It’s called Sterilox … What exactly is in this stuff?

“In a nutshell, Sterilox is a disinfectant approved by the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] in 2007 for use as a food-safe sanitizer to be used when re-hydrating or rinsing fresh produce, including leafy green vegetables. …

“Chemstar, the company that manufactures Sterilox has on their website a bottle of the stuff with organic produce in the background. At the Sprouts where I took the photograph, the Sterilox was right above the organic produce section. And yes, this stuff is allowed to be sprayed on organics!”

Chemstar’s “Sterilox Produce Maxx” product is an antimicrobial fruit and vegetable wash. The Sterilox system involves the electrolysis of a dilute salt solution (usually sodium chloride) to produce a mixture of hypochlorous acid and sodium hydroxide.

Hypochlorous acid is a powerful disinfectant and antimicrobial agent that is effective against a wide range of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi.

It is commonly used in various industries for sanitation and disinfection purposes, including food processing, healthcare facilities and water treatment.

These systems are often used to generate on-site disinfectants for cleaning and sanitizing surfaces, equipment and produce.

According to the FDA, which approved Sterilox in 2007:

“The Sterilox System is already being used by leading U.S. retailers on produce in supermarkets … the Sterilox Solution — which mimics the natural anti-microbial hypochlorous solution produced by the human body to fight pathogens — is highly effective at killing a broad range of pathogens and spoilage organisms including E.coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Listeria, norovirus, avian influenza, yeast, and molds.”

Chemstar acquired Sterilox in 2016 and added Produce Maxx to its range of chemical products, which include degreasers, oven cleaners, drain cleaners, disinfectants and restroom products.

Produce spray contains high concentration of free chlorine

Produce Maxx, which is just one type of antimicrobial spray used on produce, contains hypochlorous acid, a form of free chlorine, at a high concentration of 6,000 ppm.

For comparison, the CDC recommends free chlorine concentrations of no more than 4 ppm for maintaining safe drinking water.

Similarly, in swimming pools and spas, free chlorine levels are typically maintained within the range of 1 to 3 ppm to ensure effective disinfection without causing irritation to swimmers. “Doesn’t look very safe or ‘organic,’ does it?” Pope said, referring to the Produce Maxx safety data sheet.

“Hypochlorous acid and 6,000 ppm of Free Available Chlorine (FAC)? For comparison, only 4 ppm chlorine is considered safe in drinking water, and it isn’t even safe to drink that!

“Consider that this antimicrobial being sprayed on your fresh produce contains 1,500X that amount of chlorine. Granted, the product is diluted with tap water before spraying, but the amount of chlorine that remains on the produce itself will be astronomical and not in any way safe!”

Produce is sprayed to extend shelf life and kill pathogens

Grocers use Produce Maxx to keep produce fresher longer and reduce spoilage, but although it’s said to be safe, the health risks to humans are largely unknown.

According to Chemstar, the product can be used for crisping, washing, cut fruit preparation and misting. It lists an array of benefits, including:

  • Kills 99.999% of E.coli O157:H7, Salmonella enterica and Listeria monocytogenes in washing/crisping water.
  • Controls spoilage causing non-public health bacteria to enhance quality and shelf life.
  • Approved for use on whole or cut fruits and vegetables.
  • No potable water rinse is required.

The antimicrobial spray may be used on produce such as leafy greens and cantaloupe, as well as fresh-cut fruit, which most people don’t think to rinse off at home.

According to Chemstar:

“To keep up with time-starved consumers, the fresh cut fruits and vegetables has become a high value signature category for the produce department.

“Rinsing fresh cut fruits and vegetables in Produce Maxx reduces spoilage-causing non-public health bacteria to enhance shelf life of the product while also protecting against cross contamination.”

“Sterilox (or Aqualox or Aquatine … the same thing, just different names) is being sprayed directly on the fresh cut fruits and vegetables sold in containers, too,” Pope said.

“Believe it or not, restaurants often use it to crisp up the veggies on salad bars as well. Have you ever opened a container of fresh-cut organic produce from the health food store and washed it before eating? I know I haven’t.”

Chemstar positions the spray not only as useful for misting produce but also for cleaning equipment, including misting lines and heads, to keep them free of odor-causing bacteria.

It’s part of their larger “total store solutions,” which include “tailored chemical programs” to encompass restroom, floor and kitchen care, hand hygiene and food sanitation, along with fresh produce and floral department solutions.

Fact-checkers try to downplay Produce Maxx concerns

Prominent fact-checking group PolitiFact sprung to action to downplay social media concerns about a highly chlorinated antimicrobial spray being misted onto organic produce.

While Produce Maxx is registered as an antimicrobial pesticide with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PolitiFact says “it’s not a herbicide, fungicide, insecticide or antibiotic” and is better described as an antimicrobial produce wash.

Still, if organic produce is washed with Produce Maxx it’s supposed to be rinsed to comply with organic standards.

This isn’t the case when it’s used in misting lines, however, as it’s supposed to be more heavily diluted for that purpose.

Yet, for people looking for pure, chemical-free produce, consuming fruits and vegetables coated in Produce Maxx doesn’t fit the bill.

Its label prominently displays warnings, like “Keep out of reach of children,” along with first aid instructions if you get the product in your eyes or on skin or clothing — “Call a poison control center or doctor for treatment advice,” the label reads.

Avoiding Produce Maxx and other antimicrobial sprays isn’t easy if you shop at conventional stores, however.

It’s used by more than 50 retail brands across more than 10,000 stores throughout North America, including grocery stores, convenience shops, kitchens and food service facilities.

“Is it just me, or does it seem like we’re being poisoned at every turn even if we try to avoid the chemicals?” Pope said.

Should you wash your produce?

It’s a good idea to wash fresh produce when you bring it home, but you don’t need to use chemical disinfectants to do so.

A research team from the University of Massachusetts compared three methods of reducing toxins, such as pesticide residues, on produce.

The team used apples to examine the effectiveness of commercial and homemade washing agents to remove pesticide residue.

They applied two common pesticides to organic Gala apples and then washed them with three different liquids: tap water, 1% baking soda water solution and an EPA-approved commercial bleach solution often used on produce.

Using specialized analysis, the scientists found surface pesticide residues on apples were removed most effectively using baking soda.

While organic foods have a 30% lower risk of pesticide contamination, it’s not entirely possible to guarantee organic produce is pesticide-free, as it is sometimes located in adjacent fields to farms where pesticides are used.

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The research team believes the alkalinity of baking soda likely degrades pesticides faster, making it easier to physically remove the chemicals through washing.

They recommended a concentration of 1 teaspoon of baking soda for every 2 cups of water and gentle scrubbing.

You may also reduce your exposure to foodborne pathogens from produce by using white vinegar, as the acidic vinegar crosses bacterial cell membranes and kills the cells.

Before misting thoroughly with a blend of vinegar and water in a 1-to-3 ratio, ensure you’ve removed the baking soda, as it will neutralize the vinegar. Let the produce rest for 30 minutes and then wash it lightly under cold running water.

How to find chemical-free produce

If you’re looking for produce that doesn’t contain chemical residues, including those from antimicrobial sprays, visit local farmer’s markets.

Many small-scale farmers who sell at farmer’s markets use sustainable farming practices that minimize chemical inputs.

Talk to the farmers directly to inquire about their growing practices. While not all farmers at farmer’s markets may be certified organic, many follow practices that align with organic principles.

Joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program is another option, as it allows you to receive regular deliveries of fresh produce directly from local farms.

Many CSA farms prioritize sustainable and organic growing practices, providing members with access to high-quality, minimally processed produce.

In addition, consider growing your own fruits and vegetables using organic gardening methods. By controlling the growing environment and avoiding synthetic chemicals, you can ensure that your produce is free from unwanted chemical residues.

Originally published by Mercola.

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