If the recent reports of bacteria in bagged lettuce have you ready to eschew salads this spring, we have a better idea: Grow your own greens or buy locally-sourced unpackaged greens. Though you can’t plant a seed today and have a bowl of lettuce tomorrow, you can start thinking about veggies for your garden. Starting now, you can also frequent your local farmer’s markets for a safer, better tasting selection of salad ingredients. Here’s what you need to know about the latest bagged salad contamination.
Bacteria found in bagged lettuce
The nonprofit agency Consumer Reports has some unpalatable news for health-conscious salad lovers. Those prewashed and triple-washed greens sold in plastic clamshells or bags aren’t the health food you think you are buying – or eating.
The nonprofit group tested 208 containers representing 16 brands of packaged salad greens and found bacteria that is a common indicator of poor sanitation and fecal contamination. All samples were within their use-by date; these weren’t old greens. Though it’s a relief that no E. coli, listeria or salmonella was detected, the Consumer Reports tests found that 39 percent of the samples exceeded the acceptable levels for total coliforms and 23 percent were above acceptable levels of enterococcus. Coliforms and enterococcus are indicators of fecal or pathogen contamination.
Results varied widely, even within the same brand (including organic varieties), but packages with higher contamination levels had similarities. Many contained spinach and were one to five days from their use-by date (how many times have you bought packaged salad greens on special because their use-by date had arrived?). The brands that the Consumer Reports tests indicate as being contaminated included national brands Dole, Earthbound Farm Organic and Fresh Express, in addition to regional and store brands.
Tips for avoiding bagged salad contamination
Your best bet to avoid questionable greens is to grow your own or buy unpackaged greens, preferably locally-grown (they will likely be fresher than greens transported in). If you buy fresh heads of lettuce or other salad greens, rinse well, dry and use soon after purchase. Additionally, don’t be shy about asking your local grocer’s produce manager about the origin and age of unpackaged greens.
If you prefer to buy bagged lettuce, Consumer Reports suggests:
- Buy packages as far from their use-by date as you can find.
- Even if the bag is labeled “prewashed” or “triple-washed,” wash the greens yourself. Rinsing won’t remove all bacteria but may remove residual soil.
- Prevent cross contamination by keeping greens (and all produce) away from raw meat.
- For more information, go to www.ConsumersUnion.org/safefood.