All of us would like to believe that everything we’re able to purchase at the grocery store is safe.
And those baby lettuces and that bag of chopped romaine say they were triple washed, right?
If you’ve been at all aware of the news over the past decade or so (and we’re sure you have been) then you might at least hesitate a little before tossing a few bags of prepackaged salad mix into your cart at the grocery store.
Journalists have reported the often-scary details of food poisoning outbreaks that were traced back to contaminated spinach or leafy greens multiple times throughout the years, which sometimes resulted in hundreds of cases of illness and even a few deaths.
Nonetheless, packages of pre-cut and washed salad blends still line the shelves in the produce aisle, beckoning to us invitingly. Crunchily. Tastily.
They must be okay to buy if the stores are still stocking them, right?
Are those prepackaged Caesar salad kits and boxes of baby greens really safe? Read on to find out.
Convenience with a side of vitamins (and potential side effects?)
In our never-ending search for foods that are both healthy and convenient, salad kits, premade salad bowls, bags of washed and pre-sliced romaine and clamshells of fresh baby greens offer the best of both worlds.
Fresh leafy greens are packed with nutrients, and the words “prewashed” or “triple-washed” get a thumbs up from us. Well, for the most part.
According to food-safety-and-you.com, leafy greens are the riskiest food that you can eat, in terms of food safety.
This seems a bit harsh, and it’s important to point out right away that the potential dangers are minimal. While it’s true that leafy greens are associated with a high number of food poisoning outbreaks in comparison to other types of foods, the lettuce itself isn’t inherently dangerous and the risk of food poisoning is slim.
Here’s what you need to know, and what you can do to get your salad on safely.
Prepackaged lettuce’s journey from seed to store matters
In order to understand what’s really going on here, it’s important to keep in mind that food safety is important at all phases of food production. We’re talking about food safety on the farm, during harvest and processing, throughout packaging, shipment, storage and sale, and finally, in your own home.
You could cut out the middleman, it’s true.
If you’re able to cultivate your own vegetables (or forage for your own nutritious dandelion greens), you can keep an eye on just about every phase of the handling of your leafy greens yourself. Of course, growing them at home isn’t the most convenient option, especially when summer is over and colder weather begins to set in.
When food is nutrient-dense, the benefits outweigh the risks
Overall, Americans don’t eat nearly enough vegetables.
The decision to eat something fiber-rich and nutrient dense like a salad is always a good one. In fact, most nutritionists would agree that past food safety scares involving bagged lettuce mixes were more of a drop in the bucket than a serious risk.
Though food poisoning and possible contamination at some point along the food production and distribution chain definitely isn’t something to scoff at, it’s extremely rare.
In terms of health, the benefits of eating a healthy salad definitely outweigh the risks.
Being able to pick up a premade salad bowl at the deli when you’re on the run or stocking your fridge with fresh greens that are ready to eat makes it that much more likely that you’ll make the healthy choice. This beats settling for something like chips or a handful of candy every time.
Most of us already eat way too many foods that are high in calories, but low on nutrients.
Sure, making salad into a convenience food is genius marketing, but this is one case where everyone can benefit.
What’s not to like about prepackaged lettuce? A few things…
Some people say they actually don’t like prewashed bagged salads because they have a gritty texture, they’re slimy, or the flavor is a bit off.
Let’s take a quick look at all three of these problems to figure out exactly what’s going on here, particularly in terms of whether or not bagged greens are safe to eat.
Here’s the deal:
The nitty gritty
First, when it comes to grittiness, it’s time for some real talk. Let me lay it on you.
Are you ready for this? Okay, here goes:
Vegetables grow in the dirt.
I’ll give you a second to digest that.
But really, dirt is… dirt. We don’t want to eat it, but we can’t grow our food without it.
Depending on where we shop for our fruits and vegetables, we tend to be okay with varying levels of dirt. If you’re at the farmer’s market you might expect a little more, and a little less at the fancy grocery store down the street.
But when it comes to prewashed salad mix that comes in a bag, cut and ready to go, dirt isn’t exactly part of the bargain.
The thing is, lettuce is filled with nooks and crannies. It isn’t the easiest vegetable to wash.
It’s too delicate for a deep scrub, but sometimes the sand and grit just has a way of getting in there and it doesn’t want to let go.
When you’re washing lettuce yourself at home, you can separate the leaves with your fingers and look at it, examining every leaf as you swoosh it around in cool water or run it under the faucet.
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but believe it or not, the commercial machinery used wash your bagged lettuce isn’t nearly as fine-tuned, attentive or delicate as you are. Shocking, I know!
When lettuce is being washed, prepped and packed on a large scale, lots and lots of lettuce is being processed at a time. These cleaning systems aren’t always perfect, and sometimes a little dirt or grit gets through.
On the other hand, commercial lettuce producers use something in their lettuce cleaning processes that most of us don’t incorporate at home. What’s that, you ask?
A lettuce cleaning solution for the masses
We’re talking about chemical additives.
Okay, okay, don’t be alarmed! These are not akin to potentially harmful pesticides and they’re nothing to be feared.
They’re actually used to improve the industrial cleaning process, and they do a pretty good job.
That prewashed or triple-washed lettuce doesn’t simply go through a few cycles under the sprinkler before the machines dry it off and pop it into a bag.
Instead, chemical solutions containing things like chlorine and ozone are added to the washing water to form an effective cleaning solution.
A special secret formula
Some of the bigger lettuce packing brands have even developed proprietary mixtures that they use as part of their patented cleaning processes.
In fact, many companies describe these special blends on their packaging, as part of their effort to ensure that you, the customer, feel safe eating their product and are reassured that you have made the best possible choice in the produce aisle.
In case you haven’t noticed these descriptions of the latest state-of-the art lettuce cleaning compounds already, remember to check it out the next time you’re at the supermarket. Flip over that package of your favorite name-brand lettuce mix or check the backside of a few clamshells of baby spinach or spring mix.
Already have some in the crisper bin? Take a look at what it says on the back of that bag.
You can find this information via a quick Google search, too.
But how does it taste?
The thing about these chemical washes is that, although they’re GRAS (or Generally Recognized As Safe, meaning they can be used on food products according to certification by the FDA) they sometimes create that “off” flavor that prepackaged salad mix detractors find less than appealing.
This can also occur due to the fact that the lettuce was precut and washed, and then placed in a plastic bag for a week or two before you brought it home.
Astronauts and soldiers on the front lines often express complaints like these about the food that they’re served, and airplane food has a similar reputation. Wanna guess why?
All of it is prepackaged, for starters.
Freshness you can taste
Some would definitely argue that it’s a shame to take something fresh out of the ground, cut it up, and wrap it in plastic rather than eating it right away. Many experts argue that the nutrient content of fresh produce begins to degrade as soon as it’s harvested.
This process continues while your lettuce or other types of vegetables or fruit sit on the shelf, and can happen to an even greater degree once that lettuce is cut or otherwise processed.
And that brings us to the other common complaint that plagues the bagged lettuce consumer…
That’s right, and everybody out there who has ever bought a back of prepackaged lettuce knows what I’m talking about.
That’s right. You know those leaves that are somehow overly wet, or past their prime? They’re squishy and gross. But are they actually unsafe? Well… probably?
The thing is, slime is just another word for rot, and rotting vegetables harbor bacteria.
Sometimes, we’re talking about lots of bacteria. Whereas one or two microorganisms might slide past the teeth and gums without hurting you, a larger colony of something harmful can make you really sick.
Slimy lettuce is way past its prime, and you should definitely toss it without question.
When lettuce has been washed, cut and packaged, it tends to go spoil more quickly. Sometimes preservatives are used to maintain freshness or the bags are punched with special holes that allow it to respire (or breathe), but let’s face it: death is just a fact of life, especially where highly perishable vegetables are concerned.
Lettuce isn’t exactly the heartiest vegetable in the bin, and it doesn’t last long on the shelf or in the fridge.
So, what can we do about all of the grit and slime and off-putting flavors? And more importantly, are bagged salad mixes really safe?
Studies have shown…
Real quick, let’s see what the experts have to say.
According to the CDC, e. coli outbreaks have been on the rise for the past decade. In response to documented cases of food poisoning, regulations have been strengthened and large-scale lettuce producers have responded with tighter production methods, as well as frequent testing and monitoring of their fields and processing facilities.
The trouble with potentially harmful pathogens known for causing outbreaks of food poisoning, like e. coli and cyclospora, is that they can’t be washed off.
Wait a minute, what?
Yup, you heard me. The basic premise of this whole mess in terms of food safety scares and food poisoning outbreaks when it comes to prepackaged lettuce is this: the microbes that have the most potential to do harm in terms of human health don’t simply wash off.
In fact, washing can actually cause cross-contamination when big batches of lettuce are washed together in industrial cleaning and processing facilities along with an infected portion.
Here are some more problem areas along the production chain that can result in less-than-safe bagged lettuce:
• Some experts blame the proximity of fields where crops are grown to areas where herd animals are kept or allowed to graze or otherwise feed.
• Other outbreaks of pathogens related to leafy greens have been traced back to instances where wild animals passed through the fields where the crops were grown (though more recent studies have shown that culling wild areas immediately adjacent to cropland seems to actually have had the opposite of the intended effect, resulting in more documented cases of e. coli contamination).
• Cases of unmitigated flooding have been addressed as potential culprits, as well as the use of unsanitary water or contaminated compost or fertilizer to grow the greens, or to wash them later.
• Unsanitary conditions among workers in the fields or cleaning facilities have also been blamed, and cases of illness among workers who should have remained at home (but who, more often than not, were not given the “luxury” of sick days) have been named, too.
Washing prepackaged salad is just one piece of the puzzle
Bacteria and other pathogens that are potentially harmful can be introduced in the fields, or after the lettuce is harvested. Sometimes cross-contamination occurs during the cleaning process, or when the lettuce is cut into bite-sized pieces.
No matter how you look at this issue, whether or not packages that say “prewashed” or “triple-washed” are actually safe, and whether or not they should really be trusted, is just one small part of a much bigger picture.
In the end, there are some things you can do at home if you want to have your conveniently pre-washed and prepared lettuce and eat it, too.
In terms of saving time, you’re probably not going to like this. In terms of preserving flavor, texture, and possibly your health, it’s probably a good idea.
There’s one simple trick that you can try, and it’s easy enough to do yourself at home.
Can you guess what it is?
Wash your lettuce.
Even the prepackaged salad mix, the pre-cut romaine, the triple-washed baby spinach, the prewashed arugula or the bagged radicchio.
Wash them all!
Washing the leafy greens that you buy (or grow!) yourself gives you another shot at removing any “bad” bits (yeah, you got it—those slimy guys, and the occasional non-lettuce item), rinsing away any grit, and washing away or at least diluting some bacteria, if it’s there.
You know because we went over this already that e. coli and cyclospora are known for their sticking power, and salmonella is, too.
When Consumer Reports did their own test of bacterial contaminants in lettuce a few years ago, they founds coliforms and enterococcus instead, bacteria that are “common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination.”
Still unhealthy and unpleasant, but not quite as deadly as some of the other microorganisms mentioned here. They definitely don’t belong on lettuce though, especially lettuce claiming to be “prewashed.”
An extra-thorough rinse (or three) under cool running water and a trip through the salad spinner may be enough to give an added boost of protection to yourself and your family.
Most types of vegetables are actually washed at least once before they arrive at the grocery store, and you wash them anyway before you cook them, right?
(Quick newsflash: if you’re not already washing all of your produce before you cook it, get started today!)
Did someone say cook?
On that note, here’s something else that you should know about e. coli and salmonella:
All of us have heard stories about these harmful pathogens in the news, but these particular cases of food poisoning weren’t related to prewashed salad mixes or bagged leafy greens at all.
No, instead we’re talking about outbreaks of illness related to ground beef and eggs.
In case you missed it, here’s why these stories are dealt with a bit differently (and no, it’s not because we don’t typically rinse our ground beef or wash our eggs before we use them).
It’s in the way we eat them. So what could it be…?
Well, we don’t cook lettuce. It’s as simple as that.
While salmonella and e. coli can be cooked away at high enough temperatures (which is why food safety experts and many restaurant menus advise against eating ground beef and egg products that have not been thoroughly cooked), they’re able to thrive on products that are eaten raw.
Raw like lettuce, prewashed or not.
None of this advice is meant to scare you. At least not enough that you ban fresh, leafy greens and prewashed lettuces from your kitchen and your table for the rest of your life.
To the contrary! Rather, our intention here is to explain what’s really going on with lettuce, and what you can do to ensure that you’re feeding food that’s both healthy and safe to your family.
Keep it cold and throw out the old stuff
In addition to washing your lettuce before you eat it, whether it’s already been washed or not, try to keep an eye on the expiration dates on prepackaged lettuce and always store it in the refrigerator (kept below 40ºF!) Bacteria likes to breed at room temperature, and it can multiply over time.
Leafy lettuces that have been precut are not the same thing as whole head lettuces in terms of food safety. Whereas potential contaminants are generally unable to gain access to the inner leaves of a head of lettuce, leafier lettuces provide more open access and cutting exposes the leaf membranes to potential invasion by bacteria and pathogens.
Again, outbreaks of food poisoning are rare, but in cases where bacteria is present, it tends to multiply with time.
Expiration dates on the packaging are a good way to keep track of how long that lettuce has already been around since it was picked and processed, and how long it might remain fresh enough to eat.
The longer you wait, the more likely it is that any unhealthy invaders may gain the ability to make you sick.
Don’t cross-contaminate either!
When you’re washing your lettuce, be careful not to introduce any additional potential pathogens.
To avoid cross-contamination in your own kitchen, never mix utensils, cutting boards, bowls, etc. that have been used to prepare raw meat or fish with those used to prepare vegetables.
Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods, and don’t just dunk veggies into the sink to wash them.
That one’s worth saying again.
Don’t dump a bagful of lettuce directly into the sink.
This is fine for dishes, since you’re going to be using soap to wash them. But you’re definitely not going to wash your lettuce with soap.
Sinks hold bacteria, and they’re a ripe breeding ground for cross-contamination. Remember: You’re trying to make your food safer to eat, not (potentially) less safe!
Instead, rinse lettuce under cool, running water in a clean colander that hasn’t been used for anything else.
Here’s another tip:
You don’t need to wash the whole container of leafy greens at once.
If you wash just what you’re going to use right away, your lettuce will last longer in the refrigerator.
This brings us back to those slimy bits that you find yourself pulling out of the bag after the spinach or baby greens have been hanging around for a few days.
Adding moisture to lettuce by washing it and then putting the delicate leaves back into the refrigerator in a tight bag or container without adequate airflow helps it to spoil faster, kinda defeating the purpose of washing it in the first place.
If you can guess how much lettuce you plan to use at a time, hold off on washing the rest until you’re ready to eat it.
You can also use a salad spinner to assist with the drying process or simply wash your greens with a colander and then let it drip dry and pat down with paper towels.
Keep eating those vegetables
Finally, don’t freak out too much and eat your veggies every day!
Though the risk of contamination, recontamination, or new cross-contamination is real, it’s on the low side if you’re careful about kitchen safety.
Inspect the packages of lettuce that you intend to buy and make sure they’re cold and fresh looking.
Check expiration dates, and wash lettuce before you intend to eat it.
Keep it cold, eat it quickly, and throw away anything that’s rotten, off-tasting, or otherwise unappealing.
What are you waiting for? It’s salad time!
About Allison Sidhu
Allison M. Sidhu is a foodie from Philly who is based in Los Angeles, where she loves exploring the local restaurant scene with her husband. She holds a master's degree in gastronomy from Boston University. When she’s not in the kitchen whipping up something tasty (or listening to the latest food podcasts while she does the dishes!) you’ll probably find Allison tapping away at her keyboard, curled up with a good book (or ready to dominate with controller in hand in front of the latest video game) on the couch, or devouring a food-filled magazine at the beach.