Bagged Salad – Is it Safe?


Bagged salad makes those leafy greens so much easier to prepare. I'm sure I'm not alone in this: if I buy spinach or lettuce that is not part of a convenient bagged salad,  it's much more likely to go bad in my fridge before I get around to washing it, drying it, and preparing it.

But, as you'll recall, in 2006, there was an outbreak of E.coli in the United States, resulting in five deaths and more than 200 cases of illness. The cause? Contaminated, bagged spinach, which the victims had been eaten raw. That same year, pre-packaged iceberg lettuce served in restaurants resulted in another outbreak of E.coli.

So just how safe is your bagged salad?

Consumer Reports tested an extensive sample of bagged salads and released the results in March 2010. While the deadly E.coli was not present, many other bacteria were. This indicates poor sanitation in the growing and processing of the greens.

What Does It Mean?

Obviously, many people consume greens from bagged salads every day with no apparent ill effect. However, the presence of the non-deadly bacteria does indicate unsanitary conditions. Thus, it would seem that the conditions still exist that could result in another E.coli outbreak.

The problem is, it's frustratingly difficult to pin down just what causes one of these outbreaks. And with unsanitary conditions still in place, the potential for an outbreak to happen again is undeniable.

What Is Meant by "Unsanitary Conditions"?

When salad greens are in the field and after they are harvested, they are exposed to various potential contaminants. Agricultural run-off is one concern - the fecal matter from grazing animals can contaminate the plants in the field. Unclean harvesting equipment can also harbor bacteria. Probably the greatest risk is from human handlers, however. Those who physically touch the vegetables during processing can pass all sorts of germs on to the consumer.

How Significant is the Risk?

Despite the presence of bacteria on bagged salad greens, some experts conclude that the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. They claim that the numbers do not add up to equal a significant risk of illness. It is worth noting that low-level exposure to bacteria does actually build the immune system.

What Can You Do?

Bagged salad greens are eaten raw, so more precautions are needed in handling and preparing them for consumption. If you are concerned, you can try growing your own greens. Fresh heads of lettuce do not carry the same risk as bagged salads; consider buying lettuce in heads and washing, tearing, and bagging it yourself (washing your hands first, of course - you don't want to replicate unsanitary processing conditions in your own kitchen!).

If you do buy bagged salad, make sure it's fresh; the longer it's bagged, the longer the bacteria have had to multiply. Wash your hands before opening the bag - otherwise, you will add bacteria to the salad greens that will multiply as the salad sits. Then keep your salad refrigerated.

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