by Marion Nestle
Feb 12 2010

Bagged salads: safe or not?

Consumers Union tested a couple of hundred samples of bagged salads, organic and not.   The results? Nearly 40% contained levels of coliform bacteria higher than safety standards.  Coliforms indicate fecal contamination.  This is disgusting to think about but does not make anyone sick.

So the Consumers Union results could be reassuring or not, depending on whether you are an optimist or pessimist.  Yes, the coliform levels were high, but none of the samples contained toxic forms of E. coli, such as O157:H7.

Still, the high frequency suggests that bagged salads need either much better washing or much better maintenance of the cold chain (so the bacteria don’t grow), or both.  If nothing else, the report is a good reason why it’s important to give bagged salads a thorough washing before you eat them or serve them to anyone.

Consumers Union makes a big point of the need to get food safety legislation moving.  The House passed its version of a bill at the end of last July.  The Senate hasn’t budged on its bill.   In the meantime, we still have major national outbreaks and recalls.

The most recent?  225 people in 44 states plus the District of Columbia ill from Salmonella because they ate salami coated with contaminated black pepper. We still don’t have a food safety system that works.  We need one fast.

  • Marion,

    My grandmother always washed raw vegetables in vinegar water just before eating them. Salad was soaked for at least 5 minutes in this solution. I now put my family’s produce through the same process. Is there any data showing vinegar effectiveness against E-coli?
    I read What to Eat and found it fascinating. Thank you for all the great posts!


  • annie

    the senate passed their version in november. … or so i thought. ??

    and will you be there to make sure that small farm operations are not hit with undue regulations and high fees? the packages of salads are coming from large agribusiness packers, not small farms. perhaps the legislation has to focus on the big boys and not he small farmer trying to eke out a living off the land. this “food sfaety” bandwagon is becoming full of people who might earlier have been totally against it. i’m curious; how would you rewrite the final bill? long run? avoid packaged anything, it only makes sense. applegate just had sausage recalled from a jersey facility.. a usda “ORGANIC” product..

  • What I would like to know–is washing the greens enough? Should you add a mild detergent to the wash the first time around and then rinse a few times? And if you buy the loose baby greens, are they any better? Yikes.

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  • I think the point about the cold chain is understated. A better cold chain will just mean a more energy intensive transportation system.

    You can grow leafy greens anywhere. We need a shorter chain, not a colder one.

  • Emily

    Wait, “Nearly 40% contained levels of coliform bacteria higher than safety standards”?!?!?! It’s okay to have SOME poo in your salad, just not very much? I buy whole produce (and wash it in a vinegar solution like Alexa’s grannie), but that was always just because I’m cheap before I knew this scariness.

    Cheers to Farmer John and his like-minded colleagues across the country. I grow a few winter items in a sunny windowsill in the cold months, but it’s usually not enough food for us, so I supplement with things from our year-round farmers’ market, and am looking into building some cold frames.

  • Anthro

    I, too, am curious as to how a head of romaine lettuce, or loose greens, would stack up against the bagged version?

    Eek! Soaking, rinsing, washing–I give the head a quick rinse and then tear it up and spin it. Never been sick as far as I know. Never bought a bag of greens either. I save the vinegar for my dressing!

    I buy most of my greens from Growing Power (mentioned in yesterday’s post by Marion) and grow some of my own in a bucket under a florescent light in the basement–very simple. In the spring I’ll put some starters out among the flowers and have all sorts of greens all summer. They’re very easy to grow.

    I also am concerned that regulation intended for agri-business will have a negative impact on small scale farmers and even farmer’s markets. I bet lots of people eat bagged greens right from the bag, assuming that they are already washed, never thinking about the bacteria present in that bag.

    Greens could easily be grown much more locally if only we had the will to re-orient the system. But don’t wait for that–get a big bucket, a packet of mixed green seeds, a small florescent lamp or bulb and grow your own!

  • Peter

    While it would be ideal to grow and eat much of our own salad greens, for most of the metropolitan population that is not possible. When dealing with produce, especially organic, which is mandated to be grown in fertilizer that is natural, i.e. manure, you have to wash it thoroughly. Even if you grow your own lettuce, the fertilizer you buy from your local garden store is going to have manure in it, and should as that is the best natural fertilizer. The answer to the question is the same for anything you buy from a grocer, don’t always believe what you read on the package, especially when it says pre-washed.

  • Not To Worry

    Small amounts of insect fecel matter is actually good for you. Those in the raw food movement know this. This article is just meant to scare people who don’t know anything about good bacteria. There is plenty of info availabel on the net.

    Whenever I buy organic I never wash. I’m a vegan and unwashed leafy greens is a good source of protein and B vitamins, due to the bacteria talked about here.

  • bagged salads have always scared me. i have always avoided them. how do they keep them so fresh!? that’s not natural.

  • I generally avoid the pre-packaged salads in the grocery store, but this is still an additional, helpful reminder about why NOT to choose them. I do it for financial reasons. These companies make a killing for giving you a fraction of the salad that you’d have if you bought all the ingredients separately, plus you pay more money for them.

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  • Chef Joyce

    Washing your grocery bought items, bagged or fresh, vegetable or fruits, should always be washed in a solution of peroxide and vinegar. Soak for a few minutes, swish the product around for a minute then rinse a few times and you will be totally protected.
    Many fruits, grapes the main target, are grown out of the country and the growers use pestisides that have been banned in this country, and the packers have no strict guide lines, making for a very dangerous situation. Remember, always take the responsibility of taking care of yourself by washing your fruits and veggies. Please don’t think that because the package looks pretty and it has the words you want to hear, like pre-washed, that it’s safe and ready to eat. That’s better known in the industry as great advertising – it sells the product and that’s what most people fall for. Don’t let it be you!
    Happy eating….. Chef Joyce

  • Jo

    I was taught to wash/soak all fruit and veggies from the garden in cold salt water — removes dirt & fertilizer (the fecal matter) and kills bugs, aphids, worms that just rinsing doesn’t catch.

  • Marion: I read your book “What to Eat” and I thought that you recommended not washing greens again at home if they are already bagged, prewashed. Have you changed your mind about that?

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  • Emily

    A student worker in our office has had gastrointestinal upset for days now, and has just gotten a positive e. coli test result back. How on earth is this something we keep allowing to happen?

  • Molly

    WOW! I had no idea that bagged salads had so much bacteria.. that is disgusting. Even if it’s not enough to make you sick.. it potentially could, depending on the state of your immune system. That’s gross and sad to think that there isn’t better standards by the FDA. Kinda makes ya wonder what else they aren’t doing well…

    Antique Jewelry

  • Jasmine, london, uk

    I was reading this whilst polishing off last remains of a home made chicken enchilada and, er, bagged jamie oliver lovely summer salad. Gorgeous especially the dressing. But somehow does not seem lovely anymore! I have been eating bagged salads for years, not washing them, taste much better than what you put together yourself. However will be subjecting my greens to a get- rid- of- poo- poo wash. Does the salad not taste of vinegar thou after rinsing even if you did it with water after?

  • Jackie, Wellington, Colorado

    I have NEVER been a fan of “Bagged Lettuce”. I can’t stand the smell of any bagged lettuce and the taste is disgusting. Years, and years ago I think the first time I noticed a smell was when I would order a regular beef taco from Taco bell it smelled weird. Then I started noticing it almost everywhere as far as ordering salads at restaurants. Now a days I am on a “Plant Based Diet” and so this is a problem for me. I have always bought “Real fresh straight out of the ground Lettuce”, it’s not that time consuming as far as cleaning it and making a salad with the other vegetables that go in the salad. To me it’s worth the time instead of eating bagged lettuce which I think whatever they put on there to make it last on the shelf in the produce department has to be really bad for you, just the smell should tell you it’s bad for you. And does that bagged lettuce even taste like real lettuce-I do not think so. 🙂