Eating salad has never been easier. Just open a bag of triple-washed, prepackaged greens and you’ve got a ready-to-eat salad, from romaine to arugula to a mix of iceberg, cabbage and shredded carrots.
But with bagged salad named as the culprit for a nasty stomach bug in at least two states this summer, some people wonder: How safe is it?
The answer is, pretty darn safe. But any time you eat fresh vegetables there is a small risk of contamination, and the risk can be slightly higher when they were processed hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Officials in Iowa and Nebraska say a packaged salad mix containing iceberg and romaine lettuce, carrots and red cabbage was infected with cyclospora, a parasite that sickened more than 200 people there. The parasite is also blamed for sickening 200 people in 15 other states, including Georgia, but it’s not clear whether leafy greens are to blame.
In Iowa and Nebraska, a common supplier was identified — Taylor Farms de Mexico — and the restaurants linked to the lettuce mix included Olive Garden and Red Lobster. A spokesman for the restaurants, owned by the same company, said the chains are confident the salads are no longer in the supply chain.
Taylor Farms de Mexico announced this week that it has voluntarily suspended production and shipment of any salad mix from its operations in Mexico to the United States, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
CDC spokeswoman María-Belén Moran said it is too early to say if the national outbreak is over. Most of the cases involve people who became ill in June or early July.
Moran said there is no reason to avoid or discard bagged, pre-washed, or ready-to-eat produce. People should continue eating fresh produce using basic food safety practices (wash hands, surfaces and utensils, and rinse fruits and vegetables under cold water).
Millions of Americans eat prepackaged greens safely every day, and the risk of getting sick is tiny.
Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a trade group of shippers of green leaf products, estimates about 50 billion servings of leafy green vegetables leave California and Arizona every year, and little of it has any issues.
Mitchell Anderson, the owner and one of the chefs at MetroFresh restaurants in Atlanta, said he buys a prewashed spring mix from a California produce, and feels confident it’s as safe as any produce can be.
Anderson said a couple years ago he visited the producer and went to the fields and processing plants.
“I was impressed by the care…I couldn’t even walk on the fields without wearing booties and a hair net,” said Anderson who opened MetroFresh about eight years ago.
He keeps the salad fresh, making sure the lettuce and greens are stored between a cool 36 and 41 degrees, and enforces good kitchen hygiene.
Anderson said he has no qualms about buying pre-packaged greens at the grocery store for home use.
“Any time you are eating something from out of the ground, you are taking a risk,” he said. “But when you look at those food borne illnesses and compare it to what is consumed, it’s statistically infinitesimal and almost statistically zero. It’s just when it happens, it certainly gets a lot of attention.”
Carol Gee, of Stone Mountain, loves the convenience of packaged salad mixes..
“I know I eat more salad because it’s there and ready,” said Gee, who always rinses the vegetables first.
The CDC estimates one in six Americans — 48 million people — get sick from food-borne illnesses each year. About 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
A CDC study released in March looked at more than 4,500 food-related outbreaks between 1998 and 2008 and found more illnesses attributed to leafy vegetables — 22 percent — than to any other food. The agency didn’t say what percentage of those involved packaged greens.
Of 693 food product recalls between October 2011 and September 2012, only about 15 pertained to bagged lettuce or salads, according to the FDA. Most were due to tests finding listeria or E.coli bacteria, both of which can cause serious illness.
Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, said lettuce grows close to the ground and is more susceptible to microbial contamination. Other potential hazards include water used for irrigation can be contaminated, and field workers may not always use good hygienic practices, he said.
When lettuce is cut, it tries to heal the cut by sealing it to keep moisture in. But if the processing water is contaminated or there are bacteria on field tools, the sealing process can trap contaminants in the leaf.
What that means is for the consumer, he said, is that once the lettuce is contaminated, it doesn’t matter if the greens are washed, triple-washed and then washed one more time at home. Only cooking will kill the bacteria at that point.
Doyle said head lettuce is easier to clean because contaminants are on the outside leaves, which can be removed and the head washed. Leaf lettuce like romaine and spinach, often the subject of recalls, are harder to clean.
“People at greatest risk are those who are elderly, very young or immune-compromised,” Doyle said. “As for me, at 63 years of age, you tend to be more cautious.”
He eats salad three to four times a week, though he doesn’t buy pre-packaged lettuce or greens. He buys the loose variety — and his favorite is iceberg. His preparation ritual includes removing the first two or three outer leaves. He then washes his hands with soap and water and rinses the lettuce under cold water.
As for spinach, he only eats it cooked.
Tips for lowering chances of getting sick from bagged greens:
1. Wash your hands before opening the bag or plastic container.
2. Don’t allow the greens to come in contact with meat juices.
3. Don’t let lettuce get warm which can help bacteria thrive.
4. If the lettuce is looking gooey or brown around the edges, or if the expiration has passed, toss it.
Source: Michael Doyle, director, University of Georgia Center for Food Safety