Feeling iffy about leafy greens after recalls? Is salad safe? Here are the facts so you can feel better about serving and eating salad.
Serving crisp, green salads feels like a good thing to do for your family. But recent recalls on romaine, spinach, and other lettuces may have left you feeling a little iffy about leafy greens.
Is salad safe to eat? Which leafy greens are better? And can you really trust “pre-washed” salad?
I researched the facts and found answers. Here’s what you should know:
Should you eat lettuce?
First things first: YES! Lettuce is good for you. Lettuces of all kinds have nutritional benefits–even much-maligned iceberg, which is actually a good source of vitamins K and folate.
Eating a variety of lettuces means you’re also getting an array of nutrients and antioxidants, which are natural plant compounds that protect cells from disease-causing damage. See the nutritional perks of different kinds of lettuces here.
Salad also gets people eating more vegetables overall, and that’s always a good thing. In a 2019 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers found that people who ate salad took in more fiber, unsaturated fat, potassium, and vitamins like A, C, E, and B6–and tended to eat more vegetables in general–than non-salad-eaters.
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Can you get food poisoning from lettuce?
Like any fresh fruit or vegetable, lettuce can become contaminated with pathogens that can make people sick. And since salad greens are most frequently consumed raw, we’re not destroying those pathogens through cooking.
According to the CDC, the most serious contaminant of greens is E. coli O157. Lettuce can also become contaminated with various pathogens like norovirus, Salmonella, Listeria, and Cyclospora.
As with any food crop, contamination can happen while lettuce grows on the farm through exposure to soil, water, or even particles in the air. Animals like rabbits or coyotes can bring bacteria into a field. Contamination can also happen during harvest from contact with handling equipment or at the processing plant during different stages of cutting, packing, transport, and storage.
But here’s some important perspective: Lettuce is one of the most popular vegetables. The leafy greens industry supplies 47.5 billion servings of leafy greens per year, according to Western Growers Association. So the odds of experiencing an illness from leafy greens are actually less than 1 in 150 million, according to stats from this report.
And take note: The CDC says there’s no evidence organic lettuce is any safer than conventional in terms of potential contamination. Organic lettuce has the same exposure risks from contaminated water, soil, or animals that conventional does.
What’s the deal with romaine?
You’ve probably heard about recalls specifically on romaine lettuce. Romaine may be more prone to contamination than iceberg lettuce because of its shape, since it grows in an open head versus a tightly-formed head, which allows bacteria to get between the leaves.
Romaine is also one of the most popular lettuces and makes up more than half of the lettuce eaten. So if more of it is grown, sold, and eaten than other varieties, it makes sense that recalls on romaine will happen more often than other kinds.
Should you re-wash pre-washed greens?
No. Any salads or greens labeled “ready to eat” or “triple washed” do not need to be rinsed again. In fact, rinsing already washed lettuce greens gives you more chances for contamination from bacteria that may be in your sink or on your hands.
Is it better to rinse or soak greens?
Rinse. Rinse unwashed leafy greens under cold, running water (be sure your hands are clean!). Rubbing gently with your hands will help get rid of dirt and germs. Remove torn and bruised leaves as well as the outermost layer of leaves, especially with iceberg or other lettuce heads. Use a paper towel or clean kitchen cloth to dry them well.
Keep in mind that water does not actually kill bacteria, it just lifts it off the surface of the leaf so it can be rinsed down the drain. Drying lettuce with a cloth or paper towel after rinsing will help remove any bacteria that are lurking in water droplets. And remember that it’s impossible to completely remove all germs from lettuce–or from any food for that matter.
Salad spinners make it easy to rinse and dry greens. To follow the CDC’s advice to rinse (not soak), do this: Place your greens in the strainer part of the spinner and rinse them, rubbing gently and moving the greens around. Then spin them dry. Always wash and dry your salad spinner after using it.
And there’s no need to soak greens. In fact, this can actually cause germs to spread, according to the CDC. Soaking them in your sink means they’re vulnerable to any germs in your sink. And soaking greens together in a bowl means germs from one leaf can spread to other leaves. It’s safer to rinse greens under running water.
What about special produce washes?
The CDC does not recommend special produce washes, because there isn’t any research that they’re more effective than plain water. Using vinegar or lemon juice isn’t harmful but again, there’s no proof it’s better than water for reducing contamination–though there is anecdotal evidence that vinegar may help fresh produce last longer.
And it may go without saying, but NEVER use bleach on produce or any food you’re consuming as some viral videos have suggested! Even regular soap can be absorbed into the leaves and make you sick.
Why do my greens go bad so fast?
The way you store lettuce after buying it can make a big difference. Here are three tips from Amy Kunugi, General Manager of Southern Colorado Farms:
- Keep fresh, unwashed greens in a plastic bag in your crisper drawer set to high humidity.
- Keep fresh, washed greens in a sealed container lined with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture.
- Keep pre-washed bagged and boxed greens anywhere in your fridge since the packaging is designed to maximize shelf life (personally, I keep all greens away from the back of my fridge, which is quite cold and causes them to freeze).
Got limp leafy greens on hand and wondering if they can be salvaged? Soak them in ice water for up to 30 minutes to rehydrate and restore crunchiness.
What should I do if my lettuce was recalled?
If you do discover that your leafy greens are part of a recall, here’s what the CDC says to do:
- Don’t eat or serve it.
- Return it to the store if possible.
- If you decide to simply throw it away, place it in a sealed back and put it in an outside garbage can (be sure animals can’t access it either).
- Toss any food that was touching the greens in the refrigerator.
- Wash any containers that were in contact with the greens with hot, soapy water or put them through the dishwasher.
- Clean your refrigerator to make sure there are no harmful bacteria remaining. Here are the CDC’s recommended steps for washing a refrigerator after a recall.
What’s being done to keep lettuce safe?
It’s in farmers’ best interest that their crops are safe to eat. “This is an incredibly safe, nutritious food, and growers work hard to make sure it’s safe,” says De Ann Davis, PhD, Senior Vice President of Science for Western Growers Association.
One thing happening on leafy greens farms is called the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which involves regular audits of farms and more than 300 safety checkpoints (such as water and soil testing).
Companies that produce nearly all of the lettuce and leafy greens in California take part, and there’s a similar program in Arizona. All in all, more than 90 percent of the greens eaten in the U.S. are grown with these safety checks in place.
There are also a few things you can do at home to keep your greens safe:
- Always keep salad greens refrigerated, which slows growth of harmful pathogens.
- Keep greens (and all veggies) away from raw meat in the fridge, since the juices can transfer bacteria onto the greens.
- Use separate cutting boards for meat and for vegetables like lettuce.
- Be sure your hands are clean when preparing and handling greens.