Bagged, “Pre-washed” Salads Not So Clean

Salad greens that are pre- or triple-washed have been making news for possible contaminants. WebMD wrote that, based on an emerging investigation from the Consumers Union—publisher of Consumer Reports—increased levels of bacteria most often connected to inadequate sanitation and fecal contamination were found in bagged salads. These bagged greens can be found in the produce section of grocery stores.

Although the contaminants were found not to pose danger to the public, the fact that the produce tested positive for pathogens pointed to an increased possibility of contamination with dangerous, sometimes deadly, toxins such as <"">E. coli and Salmonella, said Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen, PhD, wrote WebMD.

Citing prior research, we have written that leafy greens have become one of the most common sources of food poisoning outbreaks in the US. In the past several years, outbreaks of E. coli and Salmonella from fresh vegetables have become an increasing problem. In fact, one of the biggest E. coli outbreaks in recent years was attributed to fresh spinach. In September 2006, bagged fresh baby spinach sold by the Dole Food Company was linked to an E. coli outbreak that was blamed for the deaths of three people and illness in 200 others. Since then, several other recalls of E. coli contaminated lettuce and other greens have made headlines.

That recall was traced to packaged fresh spinach, said, WebMD. Although the cause was not confirmed, it is largely believed that the contamination originated with groundwater contaminated with pig and cattle feces, which then contaminated the spinach, explained WebMD.

In the recent study, Consumer Reports looked at 208 packaged salads, covering 16 brands, bought last summer in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York; the produced was either purchased as either bagged salads or salads sold in plastic, clamshell cases, said WebMD. The research revealed that a whopping 39 percent of the samples tested contained more than 10,000 of the “most probable number” per gram, which is a standard coliform measure, reported WebMD. Coliform are bacteria linked to fecal contaminants, explained WebMD. Another 23 percent contained over 10,000 colony-forming units (CFU) per gram of enterococcus, another bacteria, said WebMD. Consumer Reports found these levels unacceptable.

The group also found that when spinach was included in mixes, the bacteria levels were higher; contamination levels were not impacted by whether or not the produce was bagged or packaged in a clamshell, if the produce was organic or not, or if the produce came from large establishments or smaller brands, said WebMD.

Because bacteria levels seemed to drop after six days of the use-by date, Hansen suggests consumers search for items at least six days from the use-by date for packaged salad products. Also products labeled “pre-washed” or “triple-washed” should be washed again, although this will likely not rid the product of all pathogens, he added, said WebMD.

The report appears in the March issue of Consumer Reports.

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