It’s hard enough to eat healthy. Then you have to wash the fruits and vegetables after you buy them? Such a hassle.
That’s why bagged salad greens are so convenient. You just grab one of those packaged beauties and you’re good to go.
But you might still worry that you should wash it.
What exactly does that “triple-washed” label mean? Does salad really need to be washed three times to be rid of harmful bacteria and contaminants? That seems excessive.
Shockingly, studies have found that people actually increase the likelihood that they will get sick if they clean pre-washed greens at home.
That’s because people often forget to wash the hands, sinks, strainers, and cutting boards they’re using to wash and prep the lettuce.
“It is unlikely that consumer washing of such products will make the product cleaner compared to a commercial triple wash,” Michelle Annette Smith, a food safety expert with the US Food and Drug Administration, wrote in a post about the issue. “It is possible that the additional handling may contaminate a product that was clean.”
If you’ve ever grown lettuce or been in a field of it, you know that greens grow pretty close to the ground, and they can have a hefty amount of dirt on them.
So producers wash their greens before they bag them.
“Many pre-cut, bagged, or packaged produce items are pre-washed and ready-to-eat,” according to the FDA. “If so, it will be stated on the packaging, and you can use the produce without further washing.”
The triple-washed process doesn’t just use water; it uses sanitizers to kill bacteria and other pathogens, too, Stephen Kearse found out in an investigation for Slate.
Here’s what the third wash looks like at one producer:
Kearse seemed disillusioned from his investigation into triple-washing practices, since many companies declined to disclose their precise methods. He concluded that he would rather eat a bag of salad from a producer who was open about sharing how exactly they triple-wash.
I have a lot more faith in the system, though. If a company says it’s washing salad greens, and the FDA says I don’t have to wash it again, then I’m not going to.
Of course, a triple wash can’t rid lettuce of every single bacterium. You’d have to heat the greens to get closer to that, and obviously that would ruin your salad.
And there is some reason for concern. A CDC study found that between 1998 and 2008, leafy greens were associated with more incidents of food poisoning than any other single food category (though contaminated poultry led to more deaths). That study didn’t look at bagged salad in particular, but some experts think bagged salad may actually be riskier than old-fashioned heads of lettuce, where contamination is often found only in the outside leaves (which can be removed).
A study from Consumer Reports found unacceptable levels of bacteria that commonly cause food poisoning in about a third of the 208 salad bags they tested. That doesn’t mean these bacteria would cause illness; just that they had the potential to do so.
Consumer Reports recommends buying and eating packaged salads as far away from their sell-by date as possible, since those tended to have fewer bacteria.
Unless you’re going to be extremely sterile when you wash pre-packaged lettuce yourself though, it’s probably best to leave the washing to the professionals. Especially since you’re more likely to contaminate the product if you wash it.
If you’re wondering about how to properly wash produce, watch this unintentionally entertaining PSA from the FDA:
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