Years ago I posted something about pre-washed bagged/boxed lettuce on my Facebook page (back when I could easily reach all my “likers” on that platform – but that’s a whole other story!). There were a surprising amount of commenters on that post who said they would NEVER eat pre-washed lettuce – even the triple washed stuff – without rewashing it again first. One of those commenters even knew someone who worked at a lettuce washing facility and based their opinion on those first-hand experiences. Needless to say, this has been bothering me ever since!
So after years of uncertainty, and likely unnecessary guilt when I don’t have time or frankly just don’t feel like rewashing bagged lettuce, I’m hoping to get to the bottom of this issue with today’s new post!
How Organic Greens are Commercially Washed
In a statement from Earthbound Farms…
“We lab-test freshly harvested greens for pathogenic E. coli, salmonella and shigella, and we destroy any greens that show signs of these bacteria. Only cleared greens enter our processing lines. All plant employees wear protective clothing to prevent unshielded contact with produce as equipment inspects, washes, and dries the delicate greens. Optical sorters remove stray pebbles and twigs, and the greens are passed through metal detectors as well. Then the salads are pre-washed in cold, lightly chlorinated water before packaging. At this point, the greens are lab-tested again. Salads shipped to store shelves have been food safety-tested twice.”
I also spoke to one of their representatives and learned the water they use for the pre-washing contains more chlorine than your average drinking water, although he could not tell me exactly how much (one source states it could be 50 to 200 parts per million). But the greens are then rinsed again in regular tap water and after the entire process is completed the remaining chlorine residue meets government standards (less than 4 parts per million).
I asked the representative if he personally rewashes his pre-washed greens (he works there after all!) and he said no he eats them right out of the box. He’s been in the washing facility and says he has a lot of confidence in the process. Hmmm…
The Case for Not Rewashing
Here are some convincing reasons I found to not rewash …they do have some good points.
- “In my experience, contamination is much more likely to happen in your own home than in a factory,” says Jeff Nelkin via Real Simple magazine, a registered dietitian and a food-safety coach in Woodland Hills, California.
(See the proper way to wash lettuce below.)
- According to an NPR article, “There’s a good chance that if bacteria managed to survive commercial-scale washing with chlorinated water in the processing plant, a lot of them will survive your home washing, too.”
The Case for Rewashing
And, yikes, this is what I found from the rewash camp …not looking so great unfortunately.
- It may not be deadly, but “bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination—in some cases, at rather high levels” were found in a 2010 Consumer Reports test of salad greens. No! I have heard that runoff from nearby feedlots can sometimes (unintentionally) infiltrate nearby large-scale produce farms. Double yikes.
- Researchers at the University of California-Riverside found that nooks and crannies on spinach leaves keep out the disinfectant, “leaving live bacteria present on the leaves and the possibility of an infection from those.” Based on the statement above I have to wonder how much rewashing at home would even help with this one.
The Proper Way to Wash Greens*
Whether you buy local, grow your own, or go with the bagged stuff these steps are the sanitary way to wash lettuce and other greens at home.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before handling ready-to-eat (RTE) lettuce/leafy green salads. Rewash hands as necessary.
- Clean with hot soapy water, the sink, colander, salad spinner and any utensils that will contact the lettuce/leafy greens salad.
- Use cold running water to wash RTE lettuce/leafy green salads to reduce the potential for cross contamination.
- Dry RTE lettuce/leafy green salad with a clean salad spinner or paper towel not previously used for another purpose.
- Never use detergent or bleach to wash fresh vegetables. These products are not intended for consumption.
*Courtesy of the California Department of Public Health
The slight “germaphobe” in me is a little freaked out by the fecal matter findings statement. It looks like I should probably try harder to rewash, and if for some reason I don’t (or I forget) a lot of cringing may be involved. But even more so I want to continue to try to buy – and grow – my greens locally whenever possible (and of course spend time washing those greens as well). It’s a good thing I’ve got a decent salad spinner on hand!
The bottom line is, as with any fresh uncooked foods, there is a slight risk, but the benefits obviously outweigh the risks big time. I’d love to know – where do you stand? Team Rewash or Team Prewash?