There were at least 46 outbreaks of E. coli linked to leafy greens between 2006 and 2019 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consumer Report health experts have advice on how to keep your salad safe.
Leafy greens are susceptible to contamination because their leaves are delicate and they’re grown in exposed fields. On farms, bacteria may come from animal waste that washes into fields or irrigation canals. In processing plants, contaminated lettuce that’s chopped up for bags of mixed salad greens can spread harmful bacteria further.
But for the average person, the chance of getting sick from leafy greens is extremely low. So don’t use this situation as an excuse to stop eating fresh fruit and vegetables. Lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula, and other leafy greens are loaded with vitamins and nutrients.
Consumer Reports says there are steps you can take to lessen your chance of exposure to harmful bacteria in greens.
Consider buying whole heads of lettuce. The inner leaves aren’t as exposed to contaminants, and whole lettuce isn’t handled as much as greens that are bagged, which may reduce the opportunities for contamination.
Keep packaged lettuce cold, because bacteria multiply at room temperature. Only buy what you’re going to eat while it’s fresh. And if you see any damaged leaves on whole lettuce or bruised or slimy greens in a package, don’t eat them!
You should consider hydroponic or greenhouse-grown greens, because they may be less likely to be contaminated by bacteria from animal droppings.
Research shows that soaking greens in a vinegar-water solution for 10 minutes can reduce bacteria levels. Rinsing and dressing the greens can mask any residual vinegar taste.
And cooking sturdier greens until they’re wilted is best for people who are more likely to be affected by food poisoning, such as the elderly, young children, pregnant women, or people with compromised immune systems.
When CR tested almost 300 samples of leafy greens, it found that bacteria levels in packaged greens labeled “triple washed” were similar to the levels in packages marked “unwashed.” So take these tips to heart and clean those greens when you get them home.
Leafy greens should be a part of everyone’s diet!