Yesterday, I alerted you to a Dateline NBC report on the safety of bagged salads. (Please click here so you have the background information.)

Correspondent Lea Thompson pointed out that 6 million bags of salad are sold each day. Most of us believe they’re ready to eat, without having to wash the greens—especially if you buy them in an organic food store. But officials are concerned about lettuce safety, and it has little to do with the pesticides and fertilizers that worry organic consumers.

“Over the last five years or so, we have noticed a real increase in the number of [E. coli] outbreaks that were traced back to fresh produce,” Dr. Robert Brackett, the FDA’s head of food safety, told Thompson. There are many sources for potential infection: the fields in which lettuce is grown, the bathroom habits of workers who handle produce and conditions in  processing/shipping plants. Chopped lettuce, in particular, may be more vulnerable to contamination because of the way it’s prepared for packaging.

Experts suspect E. coli outbreaks are most often the result of farm or creek water that has been contaminated with animal feces. According to Thompson, “scientists believe E. coli bacteria might have been absorbed by the lettuce plant’s root system. If that happens, washing the lettuce won’t do any good—the E. coli is already growing inside.” 

The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, not surprisingly, dismisses this as unproven speculation, pointing the finger instead at shippers and grocery store workers who handle bagged salad. (This would mean the outside of the bag was contaminated.) The CDC, however, found E. coli that matched the strain that sickened people inside a bag of salad. FDA officials believe growers need to take greater care and responsibility.

If you buy bagged salad, the FDA urges the following:

  1. Wash the greens, even if the bag states they have been prewashed or are “ready to eat.”
  2. Don’t touch lettuce after you’ve handled raw meat—another way to spread E. coli.
  3. Always refrigerate greens, and check package expiration dates before serving.

Photo courtesy of NBC